Those ancient Greeks, they really like blood. Elektra by Sophocles (translated by Anne Carson) was a sort of different take on Orestes’ return from exile to avenge the death of his father Agamemnon. As you probably recall, Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, with the help of Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin and Clytemnestra’s lover, murdered Agamemnon on his return from Troy in revenge for his murdering/sacrificing her daughter Iphigenia to get the gods to send the winds so the Greeks could sail to Troy. One good murder deserves another, eh?
A good number of years have passed and Elektra is the thorn in her mother’s side. She won’t stop moaning and grieving for her father. She makes a scene whenever she leaves the house. She keeps threatening that one day Orestes will come back and avenge their father’s death. Elektra being a woman apparently doesn’t have the right or the courage to kill her mother herself so she has set all her hopes on her brother.
Orestes was sent into exile when he was a small child. Elektra herself rescued him and sent him away before their mother and Aegisthus could get their hands on him. Now she is out in front of the house, complaining about her fate. Her sister Chrysothemis tells her that she should just give it up. But Elektra has nothing if not integrity and she refuses to bow to what she considers evil.
Unusual for a Greek play, Elektra is on stage almost its entire length. At one point she and Clytemnestra are arguing. Clytemnestra is trying to get Elektra to see the situation from her point of view but Elektra will have none of it:
Once you had decent children from a decent father,
now you’ve thrown them out.
Am I supposed to praise that?
Or will you say
you do all this to avenge your child?
The thought is obscene –
to bed your enemies
and use a daughter as an alibi!
Oh why go on? I can’t argue with you.
You have your one same answer ready:
“That’s no way to talk to your mother!”
Talk about mother issues!
Through a couple of twists and turns, Orestes eventually shows up and Elektra goes all older sister telling him what he has to do and why. Orestes really has no choice anyway since his honor requires that he avenge the blood of his father. He also has an Oracle of Apollo on his side even though he’s about to spend several years being chased and tormented by the Furies. Elektra doesn’t care about this of course, she just wants him to kill the bitch.
Orestes goes inside the palace and Elektra stays outside, waiting. We here Clytemnestra cry out from within. And outside the door bloodthirsty Elektra shouts:
Hit her a second time, if you have the strength!
The play ends with Aegisthus showing up and being led off to be murdered on the hearth where he helped kill Agamemnon. The final dialog exchange belongs to Aegisthus and Orestes. It is strange that after all that Elektra does not get the last word. But her wishes fulfilled, I suppose she no longer needs to speak.
I can’t say if I liked this play or not. Elektra’s bloodlust and her inability/ unwillingness to do anything was distressing and disturbing. There is a very powerful scene in which she thinks Orestes is dead and the urn a stranger is holding contains his ashes. Her grief is like that of a mother losing a child but in some ways it is also like the grief for a lost lover. It is also the sign of her powerlessness to act. I think I liked Aeschylus’s version better. Euripides also has a telling of the story and I will be getting to that one eventually.