Euripides: Electra, Avenging Angel of Patriarchy
This is the third version of the story of the gruesome murder of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus by her own children, Orestes and Electra, in vengeance for her own bloody murder of Agamemnon, that we have considered. Aeschylus turned the story into local boosterism, depicting the founding of Athenian legalism as a triumph over barbarous, and female, vendettas. Sophocles’s play was a bit more ambivalent, allowing the murderous children to debate the killing before doing the deed, but ultimately depicting the resolution of a blood-line curse. Euripides makes two significant changes; one altering the logic of the story and the next changing its dramatic impact. They allow him to indulge his taste for femme fatales and depict the tension between the female psyche and civilized order that was at the heart of Medea and the Bacchae. Ultimately, he makes Electra herself into an agent of the social order, damning up disordering feminine energy and reestablishing the rule of men by murder. We’re still a long way from boosterism.
The story was long established: en route to the Trojan War, Agamemnon needed to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis in order for the fleet to go forth, and he complied. When he returned home, however, his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus hacked him to death with an axe, taking his throne for their own. In vengeance, her children, Orestes and Electra, killed their mother to avenge their father and were, after Orestes was pursued by the furies, acquitted of any wrongdoing by the gods, ending the curse of the family of Pelops.
Euripides tweaks the basic storyline in two ways. The first change is somewhat minor but clears up a logical problem with the previous plays while shifting some responsibility onto Electra herself: Euripides has her married off to a lowborn peasant, while Aeschylus and Sophocles had her living in her fathers’ house with Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. She is not in the insufferable situation; she could, perhaps, continue with this relatively pleasant life. Euripides portrays the peasant as exaggeratedly good and virtuous- he has no interest in having sex with his wife, who is above his station- while underscoring that rank conveys power: the lowborn peasant is a suitable match for Electra in Aegisthus’s eyes primarily because he can’t mount any sort of retribution campaign. It’s also one of a few occasions in the surviving tragedies that birth rank is a dramatic theme, and in general Euripides has, at least in a still limited sense, more sympathy for the underdog than his contemporaries.
Secondly, he has Electra actually drive the knife into her mother along with her brother Orestes. This difference strikes me as central, as well as providing the key image of the play. Sophocles had depicted her as pressuring Orestes to kill their mother, while not actually doing the deed herself. But holding the knife, she is directly complicit in the crime and must be absolved by the gods for her transgression.
Euripides leaves the question of whether their vengeance is justified open until the end, when it’s resolved by deus ex machina. His trust in the gods is more ambiguous, here and elsewhere, than a writer like Aeschylus. Orestes makes the very good point that oracles, such as the one calling on them to kill their mother, might well be wrong, a possibility that he raises elsewhere, most notably in Iphigenia. And yet it reads so strangely in the context of Greek tragedy, where everything the gods want to happen feels inevitable and inescapable. Does this new element of doubt reflect a crisis of confidence in Greek belief, or it’s deepening and psychologizing? Does doubt deepen or erode belief in gods? In his doubt about sacred orders, Orestes is the Hamlet of the piece and his long-delayed acts of murder are indecisive acts; for Electra, there is no doubt and no dithering. Euripides offers us a brief opportunity to consider her wrong.
It’s brief though. Ultimately, the doubt is resolved and Electa’s matricide is resoundingly sanctioned by the sacred order. Some writers have argued for feminist undercurrents in Euripides, pointing to works like Medea in which the avenging female states her case well for the audience. The argument doesn’t work with the Electra story, which is fundamentally an enacted argument about authority in the context of the family- who is entitled authority and when it might be usurped? Any suggestion that Electra is a ‘feminist’ character would be wrong- in fact, would be the direct opposite of the truth- she’s an avenging angel of patriarchal authority. Clytemnestra has struck a blow against that authority by killing Agamemnon, and Electra rises up to avenge the assault on the father, and on all fathers, including the highest, which can never be justified in this particular world, no matter how justified the actions might seem to us in our, other, fatherless, world.
Consider this for an instant- Agamemnon was within his rights as a father to slit his daughter Iphigenia’s throat for military gain; thus, Clytemnestra was not within her rights to avenge her daughter’s murder by killing him. We could name her transgression ‘vengeance’, but her children’s vengeance against her is sanctioned by the gods instead of condemned. Instead, the transgression is that of a wife violently acting against her husband’s authority at all. Freud’s “Electra complex”, an afterthought pairing for the Oedipal complex, makes more sense when derived from Euripides’s version of the myth because Electra really does slaughter the mother to honor the father.
Ultimately, I think Euripides’s uneasy fascination with murderous she-beasts reflects his deeper unease about rationally ordered civilization. The feminine, in the Hellenic mind, is deeply aligned with the chthonian, dark, irrational, and disordering forces of the pre-civilized world. When detailing the same myth, Aeschylus depicted the victory of civilized order over the irrational in the act of matricide. Continually, though, Euripides undermines and pokes away at the civilized façade, like an ugly scab, hinting that patriarchy might be unstable and unsustainable; and chaos might win out. In the Hellenic mind, the collapse of patriarchy means the collapse of sanity.
Endnote: I’m happy with this, for what it is, but feel there’s something missing from my consideration of this play. Feel free to make suggestions about that. I’m not sure this is my last word on the subject.