Electra: Essay Q&A


1. What is the historical background of 5th Century Athens?


Greek drama flourished in 5th century Athens when Euripides wrote his plays. By the 460s BCE when the great statesman, Pericles, ruled Athens, it had become the most powerful and prosperous city-state in Greece. It was a center of commerce, the arts, philosophy, and religion. Athens was known for its magnificent public monuments, like the temple to Pallas Athena, the Parthenon, on the acropolis. The Great Panathenaia, honoring Athena (goddess of wisdom), included recitation of the great literary works, such as Homer’s epics. The Greater Dionysia was a festival to the god Dionysos (god of wine and theater) that held a contest for playwrights, who entered their tragedies and comedies. 


Athens was a democracy in which the 30,000 adult males could participate with equal rights under the law. Slaves and women were excluded. Pericles boasted of Athenian freedom in The First Funeral Oration, (taken from Thucydides, Chapter VI of The Peloponnesian Wars): “The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes.” Though Electra takes place in a monarchical Mycenae of antiquity, it evokes democratic ideals when Orestes praises the peasant farmer for his character, explaining that virtue and nobility do not belong to one class. 


Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.E.) did much to establish a humanistic spirit in Athens. Though a military leader, he studied with the great philosophers of the times, particularly Anaxagoras, one of Euripides’s teachers, who downplayed divine intervention in human life and promoted reason and inquiry in education. Athens was an important religious center, but the newer emphasis on freedom of discussion meant the glory of human thought was given equal honor. Though the gods descend to explain things in Electra, Euripides fosters a humanistic spirit in the play with the discussion of justice and his questioning of the gods and their oracles. 


A prolonged plague and the ravages of the Peloponnesian War finished the Athenian empire after the death of Euripides. His life spanned the glory of the empire, and his plays are a testament to the brilliance of a world that produced the great tragedians, the orator and statesman Pericles, the philosophers Zeno, Protagoras, and Anaxamander, and the historian Thucydides, all of whom became the inspiration for a later generation of Greek thinkers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. 


2. What is an Electra complex?


Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a disciple of Sigmund Freud and proposed the term “Electra complex” in 1913 to explain a girl’s competition with her mother for possession of the father. It is the opposite of the Oedipus complex where a boy competes with the father for the mother. The Electra complex first occurs typically between ages 3 and 6 during the “phallic stage” of psychosexual development. If children do not progress beyond these early and primitive desires for the opposite sex parent, they develop father-fixations or mother-fixations, seeking a mate that resembles the mother or father. 


In a more general sense, the term describes a mother-daughter conflict as illustrated by Electra and Clytemnestra. In the play of Euripides, it is evident that while Orestes is bound to revenge his father’s death by killing his mother, he does not relish it. On the other hand, Electra has a personal hatred of her mother, who has been cruel to her. Clytemnestra remarks that Electra always preferred her father, even before he was murdered. Electra adores her father and never ceases to mourn for him, tearing her body and clothes in extreme emotion. She takes pride in thinking of the way to lure and kill Clytemnestra, outwitting her with a lie. She charges her mother with abandonment and disloyalty to her children. She does not listen to her mother’s pleas for mercy.


The Electra complex generally has a negative meaning, but technically it is the Neo-Freudian description of how a girl moves from total infant fixation on the mother, a same-sex attraction, to the more mature attraction to the opposite sex, represented initially by the father. Ideally, the woman comes to identify internally with the mother and transfers father affection to a husband. She may not actually want to kill the mother, but many young women go through a period of hostility to the mother in adolescence as they sort out their identities.


Symbolically, Electra is a marriageable young woman who is searching for the correct mate. Electra does not want to be like her mother whom she sees as disloyal, selfish, and sensuous. In Freudian terms, she is fixated on her father. Hopefully, Pylades can live up to her worship of Agamemnon as the great Greek warrior and king.


3. What was the nature of Greek theater?


Greek theater originated in religious festivals to Dionysos, god of wine and ecstasy. The festival was held outdoors in Athens in March. It included singing and dancing and speaking, something of a cross between opera and drama. The seats were tiered and almost circular around the stage or orchestra. Behind the stage was a dressing room (skene) whose front wall was the proscenium with its painted scenery, but there were no scene changes. There were two, or later, three actors wearing masks, wigs, elaborate costumes and high boots to make them appear larger than life. Only men were actors, and they played multiple roles and were chosen for their loud voices that could project to a crowd. 


The Chorus was a group of 12-15 actors who spoke or sang the poetic commentaries between scenes. They represented the populace and gave background information or the author’s themes. The choragus was the producer and director for the poet, who submitted his work in a competition with two other poets. The choragus had to fund the production and train the actors. Each dramatist presented four plays, a trilogy of tragedies on one theme (such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the story of Orestes), and one comic satyr play. 


Greek theater did not try to present everyday life. The plays chose mythic or heroic stories from Greek culture, exploring the place of humans in the cosmos. The stories were thus familiar to the audience, and the skill was in the individual interpretation and poetic treatment of the playwright.


The plays had dialogue but little action on the stage; violent scenes happened offstage and were reported to characters onstage. Foreshadowing in the plot through prophesies or choral songs underscored the dramatic irony; that is, the audience understood what was coming, but the characters did not. The characters were secondary to the plot structure, although Euripides is noted for his realistic characters. There were restrictions to the plot structure, called the unities of place, time, and action. The story usually took place in one twenty-four hour period in one place and developed one significant action from inception to climax to denouement. 


The characters spoke their parts in meter (iambic trimeter or trochaic tetrameter), while the choral odes used various lyric meters. The play was not divided into acts but typically had certain parts: there was often a prologue spoken by one person; then came the parados, or entrance song of the chorus; three or four episodes of the action constituted the meat of the play; stasima or choral songs following each episode; and finally there was the exodus, the last action after the last choral song. 


4. What are the characteristics of tragedy and who is the tragic hero of this play?


One of the most influential critics of Greek tragedy, Aristotle, in his Poetics, defined tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude . . . through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of these emotions.” 


The tragic action has to have a certain magnitude or significance to be worth contemplating. That is why the poet chooses stories from myth and legend. It does not necessarily end in sadness. Here, there is a happy outcome. It has to be one action that can be viewed in a sitting, representative of the whole life. We do not see the whole story of Orestes and Electra, for instance, but only the moment when they decide to avenge their father’s death. Character is revealed when a person must make a moral choice.  


In the most admirable plots, Aristotle says, there is a complex action where the hero goes from happiness to suffering because of a mistake in judgment (hamartia, or tragic flaw), thus arousing pity and fear in the audience at the hero’s fate. Traditionally, Orestes was the tragic hero of the story because he killed his mother. In this play, however, Euripides makes Electra an equal partner, though it is only Orestes who will be driven mad by the Furies. They are only saved by divine intervention because the mistake is not their own; it is Apollo’s. 


The two most important aspects of tragic plot are the peripeteia, the hero’s attempt to reverse his fate by reversing his stance; and the anagnorisis, or moment of recognition by the hero about what has happened. In the case of Orestes, he reverses his opinion on the justice of killing his mother Clytemnestra. He regrets it and takes responsibility for what happened. The anagnorisis is a change from ignorance to knowledge, provided by Castor’s speeches giving a divine perspective and blaming Apollo for the sin.


The ideal tragic hero, says Aristotle, is not a good man who suffers, for that would seem unjust; nor is it tragedy to watch a bad man suffer, because he deserves it. The hero who arouses our pity and fear most is the man who is in between, neither completely good nor bad, but who has a human frailty like our own. Euripides makes his characters more human than heroic. Electra is a victim but not entirely sympathetic in her bloodthirsty revenge. Orestes does what he is told by the gods but questions their orders.  Castor as a demigod pities the position of humans, for theirs is a complex life with conflicting duties.


5. How is religion portrayed in the play?


The question of religion is important in the play, since it is the god Apollo, through his oracle, who orders Orestes to avenge his father’s death, including killing his mother. The mythic material Euripides uses portrays the ancient polytheistic Greece devoted to the gods and rituals. The philosophers of fifth-century Athens, however, were already questioning the literal truth of their religion, and Euripides puts doubts into the mouth of Orestes about whether the oracle can be trusted: “Cannot a demon of destruction feign the voice of God”? he asks (l.973). Electra is bitter that no gods were watching over the fall of her father or his neglected tomb. On the other hand, Orestes chides Electra for praising him for victory over Aegisthus: “First give credit to the gods . . .they shaped this day’s outcome . . . I was the instrument of gods and Fortune” (ll. 884-86). Orestes seems to be the pious prince, worthy of rule, because he upholds the gods. He does not commit the hubris or pride of Aegisthus who believes he is in control.


When the Chorus tells the legend of the curse on the House of Atreus, they express disbelief when they come to the part about Zeus making the sun and stars go backward to punish Thyestes and vindicate Atreus: “I find it hard to believe/ that the golden sun would turn . . . to make man suffer . . . Unless the tale is for teaching” (ll.732-738). For someone with an intellect, like Euripides or the philosophers, religion cannot be taken as literal truth. It might be valuable as stories for moral lessons.


There is a great emphasis in Greek tragedy on the role of Fate, the predestined events in a person’s or country’s life. When it is too difficult to understand why things happen, Fate is blamed. Sometimes Fate means the evil consequences earned by humans, as in the case of the curse on the House of Atreus, due to the ancestor, Tantalus, insulting the gods. Other times innocent people suffer under Fate, like the children of Agamemnon. Castor tries to explain that the tragedy of Orestes was somehow necessary to work out the curse on his House: “Necessity led to what Fate decreed./ And the unwise order of Apollo” (ll.1291-92). He admits that though Electra and Orestes are not defiled by the murder, they have shared the destiny of their ancestors.


The gods seem to let Fate play out, but occasionally they interfere in human affairs to tip the balance, as when Castor explains how Athena will save Orestes at his trial, and the Furies, a tool of Fate, will be defeated. Yet the Dioscuri warn humans at the end not to break the law because the gods cannot help those who commit evil. The play supports religion at the same time it questions it.