Sophocles: Electra- fated murder and bloodline curses

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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9 Responses

  1. Kyle Cupp says:

    I think the enduring strength of the play comes from precisely this moral ambiguity- acts are just or unjust depending on the capricious wills of the gods. The final judgment seems entirely unfair in many ways, but what is just is what the gods want, and what is unjust is what men want in spite of the gods.

    And when, in other stories, the gods disagree and want conflicting things, matters get really morally messy for the lowly humans. Monotheism helps with this some, as the divine will is typically singular, but even here morality is as ambiguous as there are differing beliefs about what God wants and deems is good. Even if we separate morality from beliefs about God, and rely instead on moral reasoning, we’re still left with many conflicting moralities and therefore moral ambiguity. Moral of the story: morality is always messy. Which takes us back to the insights of Sophocles and the Greeks.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

      @Kyle Cupp, I guess the advantage with the Monotheisms is that they tend to have clear “Thou Shalt Nots”. Orestes and Electra bear a certain blame for committing murder, but it’s nothing like the murder Clytemnestra commits, which condemns her to death. I think most of us would just figure that murder is murder. There is a little of this in the Old Testament too- killing is acceptable in the wars against enemies of the Lord and apparently with those people who need stoning. It seems like the messiness comes in the difference between moral law in theory and practice.Report

  2. Will says:

    It’s weird that two Athenian playwrights would have such radically different interpretations of the same incident. Is this is a significant thematic difference that crops up in their other works, Rufus? Does Sophocles always come off as a fatalistic conservative, and does Aeschylus always tend towards a more optimistic, rational worldview? Or am I foolishly shoving these guys into modern categories?

    For Dune aficionados, I’d note that the curse on the House of Pelops persists well into the future. House Atreides claims descent from Atreus, I believe.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Will says:

      @Will, I guess I should admit my bias here- I certainly respect that he wrote two legitimate masterpieces of Western literature, but I have a harder time liking Sophocles than the other two Athenian tragedians. It’s not that I find him too fatalistic- but I find his plays are resolved a bit too easily. It is a sort of resignition to fate- which I guess is the definition of fatalism. Aeschylus strikes me as more optimistic, but Athens was still flush with victory and optimism at the time he was writign. I still find the Oresteia kind of amazingly optimistic about the power of Athenian- and really western- rationalism. Imagine a play in which Jesus appears and writes the American Bill of Rights for the founding fathers- not even Sarah Palin would be totally comfortable with that!

      For me, the real comparison is between Aeschylus and Euripedes. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the Bacchae, not to mention Medea, to be really a brutal response to the Oresteia- to wit: fuck your western rationalism; irrationalism and the barbarous will eventually come to destroy you. It’s a different generation. Sophocles, by comparison, I find weirdly complacent- okay, the gods aren’t exactly fair, but there’s nothing we can do about it. I was a bit unfair when I compared Sophocles in a previous post to those religious fundamentalists who will look at a natural disaster and say, “Well, just goes to show you- God is both great and mysterious!” But he definitely isn’t as aggressive, angry, or ambiguous as Euripides, nor as optimistic as Aeschylus.

      But that’s just my take on the three of them. I’d love to hear what other people make of the gang of three.Report