Having finished Electra by Euripides (translated by Emily Townsend Vermeule), I have now read a version of the same story by all three of the great Greek tragedians. Between Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, Sophocles’ Elektra, and Euripides Electra I think I like Aeschylus best and Euripides least. Euripides I think was going for something a little different, some pscycho-sexual rendering of the character of Electra but it just didn’t work and she comes off as nothing but a bitch.
Produced in 413 B.C., Euripides, unlike the other two playwrights, marries Electra off to a peasant in order to keep her under control rather than imprisoning her in the palace. Electra’s husband may be a peasant but he is still a good and honorable man. He knows he is being used and has wisely not consummated the marriage, leaving Electra’s virginity intact and her eligible to marry someone else should the day ever come when her mother is no longer in power.
But Electra is an ungrateful bitch about the whole thing. Instead of thinking, wow I could be dead or my husband could be a bad man, she can do nothing but complain, call him stupid, and wail and moan about how unlucky she is. When her brother Orestes shows up in disguise pretending to be a messenger from her brother she commands:
First tell him how I am kept like a beast in stable rags,
my skin heavy with grease and dirt. Describe to him
this hut – my home, who is used to live in the king’s palace.
I weave my clothes myself and slavelike at the loom
must work or else walk naked through the world in nothing.
I fetch and carry water from the riverside,
I am deprived of holy festivals and dances,
I cannot talk to women since I am a girl
And on and on she goes. It is hard to feel sympathetic for her. I wonder if the Greeks in the theatre watching this in the day were moved by her plight?
Orestes finally reveals himself and he proves to be more likable than his sister. He even sort of scolds her for her attitude towards her husband:
we look for good on earth and cannot recognize it
when met, since all our human heritage runs mongrel.
At times I have seen descendants of the noblest family
grow worthless though the cowards had courageous sons;
inside the souls of wealthy men bleak famine lives
while minds of stature struggle trapped in starving bodies.
How then can man distinguish man, what test can he use?
[…] This fellow here [Electra’s husband] is no great man among the Argives
[…] and yet we choose him champion.
Can you not come to understand, you empty-minded,
opinion-stuffed people, a man is judged by grace
among his fellows, manners are nobility’s touchstone?
Of course, in the end, Electra gets to divorce her peasant husband and marry a man of wealth so Orestes’ speech is just so much aristocratic lip service.
There isn’t much in the way of high emotion or heavy guilt for the matricide Orestes and Electra commit. There isn’t much to draw in the audience, nothing interesting or especially tragic. It is rather a dull play. Too bad too because the story has such potential with the brother and sister stuck in the middle – they are supposed to avenge the murder of their father but what do you do when the murderer is your mother and matricide is forbidden? Oh well. I guess even Euripides can write a clunker.