Orestes breaks off his embrace with his sister and asks the old tutor to advise him how to avenge his father’s death. Does he have any friends in Argos who will help him? The old man tells him he has no allies here. He must go alone with his luck to gain back his father’s palace. He must kill both Aegisthus and his mother, but he cannot get inside the city because Aegisthus is surrounded by guards. However, just now, Aegisthus is preparing a feast outside the walls in the fields with few attending slaves. As he does the sacrifice, Orestes and Pylades should walk by him, and Aegisthus will be required to invite guests to the feast. Clytemnestra will not be there; she will come later.
Orestes wonders how he can kill them both, and Electra volunteers to kill her mother. Electra explains her plan to send word by the tutor that she has given birth to a son. She will ask her mother to come and do the necessary ceremony for her after the birth. Her mother will feel enough guilt to come. The tutor agrees to the plan. First he must show Orestes where Aegisthus is sacrificing, and then he will give the message to Clytemnestra.
Orestes, Electra, and the old man pray to Zeus for success, and Electra prays to Hera, the goddess who protects Mycenae. Electra tells Orestes he must succeed in killing Aegisthus or she will kill herself on a sword if Orestes dies. She asks the Chorus to watch and raise a cry for victory or defeat, concerning the outcome.
The Chorus sings about the god Pan who wandered in the meadows of Argos and charmed a golden lamb to come into the city, an omen of seeming good fortune for the House of Atreus. Yet it caused division as Thyestes stole the wife and golden lamb of Atreus for himself. This is part of the continuing story of the cursed House of Atreus.
The Chorus breaks off their tale as they hear loud noises. They call to Electra to come out of the house. A messenger, the servant of Orestes, enters and tells of the death of Aegisthus and triumph of Orestes. The king was strolling in the garden and seeing the strangers, Orestes and Pylades, who called themselves Thessalians, invited them to the sacrifice and feast. Aegisthus prayed that his enemies might be cursed and then asked Orestes to slaughter the bull for the sacrifice. Orestes opened the belly of the calf with a knife, and Aegisthus saw the evil omen: the liver had no lobe. Aegisthus suddenly feared it was a message about his enemy, Orestes. Orestes then took a cleaver as though to kill the bull and killed Aegisthus instead. The servants surrounded and threatened the two strangers, but Orestes revealed himself as Agamemnon’s rightful heir. The Chorus sings a victory song on hearing this news.
Electra is overjoyed and goes to find ornaments to crown her brother as Orestes and Pylades return. Electra crowns Orestes, calling him a hero, and she does the same for Pylades. Orestes tells her she must give first credit to the gods, of whom he is only an instrument. He has brought the body of Aegisthus for proof of his deed, and she may throw it to the animals, if she likes.
Electra in turn reminds Orestes that it is not right to insult the dead by denying them their rites, but she will speak to the corpse. She charges Aegisthus with his crimes. She reveals that despite appearances, his life was miserable and justly so, for the criminal pays for his crimes. She tells the men to hide the corpse in the house so her mother will not see it.
Clytemnestra approaches in her chariot in state, surrounded by her gorgeously attired Trojan slave women. Orestes is suddenly full of doubt and asks Electra if she really means to kill their mother? He agonizes over doing such a deed and wonders if Apollo was unwise to command this act against nature. He has done right so far, but killing a mother will make him an outlaw, and he will pay for it. Perhaps it was a demon who spoke to him and not Apollo after all.
As Orestes falters, Electra urges him on, accusing him of cowardice. He goes into the house to hide until Clytemnestra steps inside. The Chorus sings praise to the Queen as she steps down from the chariot tended by the Trojan women. She calls them war prizes to replace her lost daughter, Iphigenia. Electra offers her hand to help her mother down, but Clytemnestra refuses it.
Clytemnestra defends her actions saying that all this was the fault of Agamemnon, who killed their oldest daughter, Iphigenia, telling her she was going to the altar to wed Achilles and then slit her throat as a sacrifice to the gods for victory at Troy. On top of that, he brought home his concubine, the “god-crazed girl” (l. 1026) Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, to share his bed. These were enough reasons to kill him.
The Chorus finds some justice in her grievances, and then Electra asks to state her side of the case. Electra charges her mother with impurity of heart. Clytemnestra and her sister Helen are beautiful but immoral. Clytemnestra says it was grief for her daughter’s death that motivated her to sleep with Aegisthus, but Electra accuses her of not wanting Agamemnon to return. And how did Orestes and Electra offend their mother who betrayed them for her lover? She concludes that their defense for revenge is also just.
Clytemnestra admits she is not always happy for what she did, but Electra does not accept her regret. Electra asks her to perform the ritual for the birth of a child, and Clytemnestra reluctantly agrees and enters the house.
Meanwhile, the Chorus comments on the justice of what is about to happen to “the faithless wife,” Clytemnestra (l.1146). Her screams to her children for mercy as they kill her are heard within the house. Orestes, Electra, and Pylades bring the two dead bodies out of the house and display them, while the Chorus chants of the curse on this royal house with its continuous blood feuds.
In remorse and shock for what they have done, Orestes and Electra begin to mourn their deed. Electra blames herself for their mother’s death, for she actually guided the blade in Orestes’s hand. Orestes calls himself an outcast for murdering his mother and wonders where he can go now? Electra knows there is no place for her; no one will marry her. The Chorus agrees what they did was unholy and blames Electra for pushing Orestes into this sin. Orestes says he could only do it by holding his cloak in front of his eyes.
Just then the Dioscuri (Castor and Polydeuces) fly above the stage. They are the gods coming down from Olympus to bring news of the judgment on the children of Agamemnon and the end of the curse on their house. Castor and Polydeuces are twin sons of Zeus and divine brothers of Clytemnestra. They come at the death of their sister and announce that though her punishment was just, Orestes committed a sin. Fate has ordained the way out of this dilemma. Electra must be given to Pylades as his wife. The farmer will go with them and be given a rich reward. Orestes must leave Argos; he will be driven mad by the Furies until he reaches Athens and submits himself to the goddess Athena. On the Hill of Ares in Athens Orestes will stand trial for murder. He will be acquitted by Athena because Apollo who told him to kill his mother will accept the blame. After his penance, Orestes will go to Arcadia where he will found a city. Meanwhile Menelaus and Helen have come to Argos and will bury Clytemnestra.
Castor concludes that the brother and sister have thus not been defiled by the murder. The Chorus asks why the gods did not protect their sister, Clytemnestra? Castor says it was Fate and Apollo’s decree that led to the deaths. Orestes and Electra have been victims of the family curse, but now, they must leave their homeland. The curse is over. Orestes and Electra embrace as they part, never to meet again.
Castor addresses the audience directly to say that the gods never rescue those who are defiled by evil, so “let none of you do wrong by choice” (l. 1342). The Chorus has the last word, commenting that the mortal who escapes misfortune in this world is truly lucky.
Commentary on the Second Half of “Electra”
As was the tradition in Greek theater, the killings happen offstage and are reported by witnesses. Since the audience already knew the story, there was no surprise in the plot. It was the skillful interpretation of events and characters and the poetry of the speeches that delighted the audience. The Chorus is used here to increase tension and horror by commenting like a narrator on what is happening offstage as the death cries are heard.
The Chorus now goes back farther than the Trojan War to the legendary past to explain the curse on the House of Atreus. They tell of the feud between the brothers, Atreus and Thyestes both exiled from their homeland for killing their half-brother, Chrysippus and both claiming the throne of Mycenae. Atreus vowed to sacrifice his best lamb to Artemis, but when he found a golden lamb, he hid it from her. He gave it to his faithless wife Aerope, who gave herself and the lamb to his brother, Thyestes. She told Atreus that whoever had the golden lamb would have the throne, and then Thyestes took the throne because he had the lamb and Aerope. Thyestes said he would only return the throne when Zeus made the sun move backwards in the sky. Zeus did this, and Atreus took back the throne.
Thyestes got revenge by having an illegitimate son, Aegisthus, who avenged his father’s wrongs by marrying Clytemnestra and killing Agamemnon, the legitimate son of Atreus. This feud carried on from one generation to the next until Orestes ended it with his penance.
There are two trials in the second half of the play. The first is in the scene between Clytemnestra and Electra, where mother and daughter both state their grievances and their side of the feud before the Chorus who comments on the justice of both claims. Clytemnestra states two grievances against her husband, Agamemnon. First, he had been told to sacrifice his most precious possession to appease the gods so they could get a favorable wind to Troy. He sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, on the altar to get wind for his ships. Second, he brought home a concubine from Troy, the princess Cassandra, who was a prophetess. She was slain with Agamemnon.
The Chorus agrees Clytemnestra has a just cause for revenge. The feudal code was “an eye for an eye.” Electra points out that she and Orestes have an equally compelling case in that their own mother killed their father and king, and she destroyed the lives of her children. Electra also states her case in her accusation to the corpse of Aegisthus, numbering his crimes. In this informal trial both sides in the family feud have cause for anger, and no solution is found, for the killing goes on. Revenge begets revenge.
What could stop this endless feud? The gods assign Orestes a hard role. He is told by Apollo to do the traditional revenge for his father’s death. This he does, but it includes the proviso that he must also kill his mother. He is torn between two duties, for it is a sin to kill a mother. Yet he cannot refuse to obey the gods. He obeys and makes atonement ending in a trial that finally acquits him, presided over by Athena, goddess of wisdom. This is all explained at the end by Castor, a demigod who descends from heaven to intervene and straighten things out. The device in Greek drama of having a god come down to resolve the action is called deus ex machina, the god in the machine. The actor impersonating the god hovered over the stage in a crane.
Castor and Pollux or Polydeuces (the Dioscuri) were twin sons of Zeus and half brothers of Clytemnestra who come at the death of their sister. In the Latin myths, they became the twins in the constellation, Gemini. They foresee the trial and judgment on Orestes at Athens. First he will do penance for his mother’s death by being driven mad by the Furies (the Erinyes), deities of vengeance for crimes against nature (killing a mother). Castor tells how once the gods in the jury vote in favor of Orestes, the Furies will lose their power and become guardians of a sacred shrine. Their name was later changed to Eumenides, the kindly ones.
The resolution of the play represents a moment in Greek history when revenge ceases to be the law of the land. The significance of the trial at Athens is that it supersedes trial by blood feud. It includes a jury of twelve and a more civilized, objective approach to judging a crime. It celebrates the infusion of divine law into human law. The Hill of Ares in Athens was where the court Areopagus convened to decide murder cases.