It is dawn on a mountain farm near Mycenae, Greece. The peasant farmer comes out of his house and looks towards the plain of Argos.
The peasant speaks a monologue about the old days of Argos when King Agamemnon sailed with a thousand ships to Troy where he was victorious in the Trojan War. He killed King Priam and sacked Troy and returned home with treasures and glory. Unfortunately, when he reached home, his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, killed Agamemnon, and then Aegisthus married Clytemnestra and ruled Argos.
Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, was taken by Agamemnon’s old tutor and given to King Strophius at Phocis to bring up in safety. Electra, the daughter, remained at home until she became of marriageable age. Aegisthus was afraid she would marry a prince who would give her a legitimate heir to the throne. He wanted to kill her, but Clytemnestra saved her daughter by giving her as a wife to the peasant so her children would not be of noble birth. Aegisthus exiled Orestes and put a price on his head.
The peasant confesses that as a loyal Mycenean, he cannot dishonor the House of Agamemnon, and so he has not touched his wife. She is still a virgin. He does not want to taste the revenge of her brother, Orestes, if he should ever return.
Electra enters with a water jar on her head. She has gone out before dawn to get water at the spring, not because she is a slave or servant now, she says, but because she wants to show the gods the tyranny of Aegisthus that she, a royal princess, could be brought this low. She laments her father’s death and claims her mother betrayed her own children, Orestes and Electra.
The peasant asks Electra why she is working so hard for him? He is not asking a woman of royal blood to work. She answers that he has been a good friend to her, and so she should help with the farm, though he has not asked her to. He expresses gratitude.
They leave, and Orestes and his friend, Pylades, enter. Orestes tells Pylades he is his only loyal friend who has supported him against Aegisthus. The oracle at Delphi has told Orestes he must return here to Argos to avenge his father’s death. No one knows of his arrival. He has visited his father’s tomb secretly and cut off locks of his hair in mourning, performing a ritual sacrifice with sheep’s blood. He has not entered the city but remains on the border, so he can escape quickly. He is also searching for his sister, Electra, to get her help with the revenge.
In the distance he spies a slave girl with her hair cut off. The friends hide to overhear any information from her as she passes. Electra enters and mourns for her fate. She is called “pitiful Electra” (l. 119) by the people. Her only hope is her brother, Orestes. She wonders where he is and why he does not come to rescue his sister? She laments their father, Agamemnon, and wants her grief to penetrate his grave to find him in the land of the dead. She has disfigured herself in mourning by cutting her hair and tearing her cheeks with her nails.
The Chorus (a group of Argive women) enters and tells Electra of the feast for Hera that will be held in the city. Every maiden must dance in this ritual. Electra says she cannot think of festivals now. She cannot join the maidens. She is in rags and mourning, living a peasant’s life.
The Chorus warns that the goddess Hera may not be neglected. The Chorus of women will lend her a robe and jewels. She must pray to the gods to reverse her fate.
Electra replies that the gods do not hear her prayers, nor did they regard the funeral sacrifices for her father. Both she and Orestes are outcasts. The Chorus agrees that the sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen, brought misfortune to Greece through their actions.
Orestes and Pylades enter and speak to the Chorus and Electra as though they are new to this country and want information. Electra tries to run away, but Orestes, posing as a noble stranger, asks her to wait and listen to him. He brings news of her brother. Orestes is still alive and seeking word of her. She points to her wasting physical condition. Orestes says it almost makes him cry to see her. He asks if her brother still loves her, and she replies they have been separated. She has been married off to a peasant. Orestes is shocked, but Electra explains that the peasant is a good man and kind to her. He has not taken her to bed because he does not want to insult the House of Agamemnon. Orestes replies the man deserves a reward.
Orestes asks if her mother allowed this to happen, and she says yes, but her mother does not know she is still a virgin. The Chorus represents trusted friends loyal to Agamemnon’s descendents, so they can hear her secrets. Orestes, still posing as a stranger, asks Electra if she would help her brother to avenge the death of Agamemnon? She says she would, even killing her own traitor mother, and then she would happily die. Electra admits she would not know her own brother if he stood before her because they were separated as children. Only one person would know Orestes now—their father’s old tutor who saved the boy’s life.
Orestes asks if her father was given a proper burial, and Electra says his body was thrown from the house. Orestes and the Chorus ask to hear the history of Agamemnon’s death. Electra recounts how Agamemnon’s murderers, her mother and Aegisthus, disgraced the grave of Agamemnon and asks the stranger to tell Orestes to come home.
The peasant husband enters and chides Electra for talking to strangers; it is not becoming to a wife. When he finds out they bring news of Orestes, he politely invites them into his house as guests. Orestes is impressed, admitting there is no way to tell a person’s true worth from station or birth. Fate can make an aristocrat evil or a poor man good. They enter the peasant’s house. Electra is worried that they do not have food for noble men to eat and sends the peasant to find the old tutor to bring some meat and gifts.
The Chorus sings of the Trojan War and the hero, Achilles. His celebrated sword caused the death of Hector and brought victory to the Greeks, yet Clytemnestra killed the commander of the victorious Greeks with her adultery. The gods will bring her death, they foretell.
The old tutor enters with food and gifts for the guests. He says that he saw signs of mourning and ritual at Agamemnon’s tomb as he came here. He believes Orestes has returned. When he meets the stranger, he recognizes Orestes himself from a scar on his forehead. Brother and sister fall into each other’s arms, and the Chorus sings of dawn coming after a long night.
Commentary on First Half
The characters in the first half of the play refer frequently to the history of the mythical House of Agamemnon (or House of Atreus, the name of Agamemnon’s father) who ruled as King of Mycenae, the citadel of Argos, a city-state of Greece. The House of Atreus was embroiled in family feuds for generations, and Orestes was a celebrated hero for finally ending the blood feud. The Greek and Trojan War and the feuds of the royal Greek houses were popular myths for Greek plays. Why then does this play focus on the daughter of Agamemnon, Electra?
Electra’s sad plight is the final impetus for the revenge that Orestes has been instructed to complete by Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. In warrior cultures like that of the Greeks, the honor of the family had to be preserved by avenging an unlawful death. Orestes is sometimes compared to Hamlet in the duty of revenge he must perform on his father’s murderers, but unfortunately, it means he must kill his mother too. He is in a bind, having been ordered by the gods to do his duty, but killing a mother is a sin that will be punished, and he is reluctant. The outrage of Electra’s life, her being forced to live as a peasant in order to destroy the family line, stimulates Orestes’ sense of vengeance and helps him to overcome his repugnance to matricide. Electra blames her mother directly for abandoning her children and killing their father. She urges him to do the unthinkable sin of killing their mother as the proper course of action. Though Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all composed versions of this story, only in Euripides is Electra present in the action and a participant in the murder. Euripides give her a more important role but at the same time, makes her very human.
In this first half of the play, Electra gains the sympathy of the audience through a recitation of the wrongs done to her, to her father, and to her brother. Furthermore, she gains sympathy through her relationship with her peasant husband. Because he is kind and respectful to her, she does not mind working like a slave on the farm, though he has not asked her to lower herself. This incident of her marriage to a peasant was a detail added by Euripides, since traditionally, we only hear of her marriage to Pylades.
Electra is a model daughter in her admiration for her father who was a hero in the Trojan War. The irony of his short-lived glory is made clear by her speeches. Instead of getting a hero’s welcome at home, he is met by murder and treachery from an adulterous wife. Furthermore, the sacred burial rites were not performed allowing Agamemnon ease in the afterlife. Electra hopes at least her father can feel the depth of her grief in the underworld, so he will not feel unmourned. We learn about Clytemnestra’s side of the story in the second half of the play.
The climax of this part of the play revolves around the recognition scene between brother and sister who have been separated since childhood. Euripides is skillful in teasing out the emotion and tension that build as Orestes in disguise finds out what has happened while he was exiled. He cannot bear to see his sister wasting away in her shameful situation, disfigured by having her hair shorn off and by inflicting wounds on her own body, as a sign of grief. Her hopelessness is highlighted when the Chorus, representing a group of loyal friends who live outside the court, tell her she should come to the festival for maidens who dance to Hera, the goddess of marriage. She refuses, saying though she is a princess, she is in rags. They offer to lend her a gown and jewels, but she is already wed, a “married virgin” (l. 313). She has no life or future.
Electra’s punishment is, for that time and place, a fate worse than death. Bloodlines were not merely a matter of social status, but also of religious significance. It was her duty to keep her royal bloodline. By diluting it with peasant stock, she would be destroying her family house and their ability to rule. That her own mother would inflict this on her was so monstrous that Orestes is worked up to the frenzy he needs to carry out his grim task. The Chorus speaks of the evil the two daughters of Tyndareus have brought to Greece. The two brothers of the House of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus, married two sisters, Clytemnestra and Helen, daughters of Tyndareus. Helen (of Troy), the wife of Menelaus, was the cause of the war with Troy, when she was abducted by Paris. Clytemnestra almost destroyed Greece in another way by killing Agamemnon and trying to destroy his line.
Euripides keeps the dramatic irony going for most of the first half of the play, with the audience knowing the true identity of Orestes, while Electra does not. Her mourning her beloved father and brother innocently before him helps the audience also to gain sympathy for Orestes as the last male protector of the family and family line.
The odes of the Greek Chorus provide commentary and background on the action. They tell of the hero Perseus, the legendary founder of the city of Mycenae, the one who slew the monster Gorgon. Achilles and Agamemnon are also praised by the Chorus as Greek heroes, though Agamemnon was dishonored by his wife’s treachery.