Sophocles: Electra- fated murder and bloodline curses
All three of the great Athenian tragedians (Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles) dealt with the story of Orestes and Electra killing their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus in revenge for their murder of their father Agamemnon. Aeschylus depicted the murder, vengeance killing, and Athena’s subsequent creation of legal justice in a trilogy that reads as Athens boosterism- Athenian civilization founded in a just act of matricide. Euripides dealt with the vengeance killing and the subsequent guilt of Orestes and Electra, but all three playwrights ultimately recognized the rightness of the act and its necessity to rid the house of Pelops of a blood-line curse. Sophocles dispenses with the pretence that Orestes and Electra experienced any sort of guilt over what he sees as a necessary end to the curse. It has been fated, thus Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are in need of killing. The play moves forward with a sort of horrible inevitability, underscoring the bond between fate and death in the Greek mind.
The house of Pelops was cursed for generations. Pelops, who came to be king of the Peloponnese, won his bride Hippodamia by defeating her father Oenomaus in a rigged chariot race- rigged by Myrtilus, the King’s charioteer, who wanted a go with Hippodamia in return. Oenamaus was killed in the race and, rather than let Myrtilus screw his new bride, Pelops killed him too, but not before he could curse their descendants. Next in line, their sons Atreus and Thyestes, rivals to the throne; Atreus finally won by trickery, but found that Thyestes had ravished his wife. In revenge, Atreus fed his brother a banquet that included bits of his children; in revenge Atreus cursed his brother’s descendants. Thyestes had two sons: Menelaus and Agamemnon. The first was cuckolded by his wife Helen, launching the Trojan War. The second was nearly killed on the voyage to Troy by the goddess Artemis, who he once blasphemed during a hunt, and killed his own daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice of atonement. Voltaire, characteristically, considered Iphigenia a martyr to religious fanaticism, an unfair assessment, given that this is the world of fate instead of faith. Perhaps, however, Agamemnon should have accepted death rather than kill his daughter.
His wife, Clytemnestra, certainly thought so. Full of wrath, she found a lover and the two of them waited until Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War and butchered him with an axe. By some accounts, they sent his son Orestes and daughter Electra away for safety’s sake. Sophocles, however, portrays Electra as living under her father’s murderers in what has to be the most dysfunctional family unit in Greek tragedy.
Sophocles would prefer the term “polluted”- not only by the unavenged murder, but by the curse itself. The idea of a bloodline curse seems strange today, although we recognize Electra’s rage as a sort of psychological perpetuation of trauma through the generations. Ibsen tried to show the equivalent through the more genetically cursed family in Ghosts, but this is something more from the realm of vengeful spirits than DNA. Keep in mind that, for the average Greek (Socrates not being average), the world after death offers little in the way of justice. Homer portrays it as a miserable, dark place below the earth, even for Achilles, and later Greeks seem to have thought the dead exist in something like suspended animation in a realm of forgetting. Hence the emphasis on glory: one’s name could live on in greatness, but otherwise there was little to look forward to after dying.
In this context, bloodline curses seem an understandable attempt to settle scores. An evildoer might not be punished in life or in death, but his descendants will be carrying the debt. Notice too that the Torah doesn’t talk about final judgment or life everlasting, but does talk about bloodline curses extending through several generations. Nations still half-tribal tend to place an emphasis on the obligation owed within family lines to later generations; later theologies will emphasize the debts paid upon death.
What’s interesting about Electra, and characteristic of Sophocles, is how the two avengers differ in their motivations, summed up in their opening speeches. Orestes is frighteningly glib, aware of his prophesized duty; while optimistic about how well killing his mother will play to others and the glory it will bring. Note also that his revenge hinges on a shrewd deception: playing a messenger reporting his own death in a chariot accident, richly depicted. The power of language equals that of a sword-thrust.
Electra, meanwhile, is consumed by rage and sorrow and yearns to kill her mother, even if it means shame and death for herself. I think we identify with her for the traits (rage and psychological torment that obliterate reason) that the contemporary audience would have recognized as failings. What we see as authenticity, the play explains as intemperance. Conversely, her sister Chrysothemis accepts her fate humbly, which we see as cowardly. It also has to be said that Freud’s “Electra complex”, a bit of gender-based affirmative action to compensate for the Oedipus complex, doesn’t quite apply to Electra: her love for her brother is intense and borders on romantic, but she has no sexuality to speak of and her loyalty is to her father’s name.
One of the strengths of Greek tragedy is this intensity of emotion. The characters are unable to control either their anger or their lust, living on the edge of their impulses in a way that makes us look we’re wearing gray flannel suits. Certainly this goes for Clytemnestra too- while she’s been demonized, it’s hard to see why her vengeance is so easily condemned and that of her children is so easily forgiven. Some have wondered if Sophocles really does forgive Orestes and Electra so easily- their mother states her case well and the Chorus warns Electra about the dangers of her rage. Does Sophocles really approve of the murders that end the play?
I think he does. Instead of atonement, the play ends with a declaration that the pollution has been removed from the family. Sophocles is often called a “pious” playwright- the difference between the killing of Iphagenia, Clytemnesta and her lover versus that of Agamemnon is that the former were acts of fate and the latter an act of human will. 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.