Sophocles’ Electra is a play that is full of complex characters. The most complex amongst them is Electra herself, and her mother Clytemnestra. When first introduced to Electra, she is a state of mourning of her late father, whom as is revealed, has been murdered by his own wife, and mother of his children; Electra’s mother. The complexities in these characters come about from the fact that even though they are blood relations, they do not feel inhibited in any way to kill each other at the first and closest available opportunities all in the name of revenge for the wrongs done to them. Agamemnon is at the centre of the underhand dealings and fatal plans that have engulfed his family following his death. Nonetheless, Electra is a different person, in character, and many other ways, to her mother Clytemnestra.
As the protagonist of the play, Electra assumes a complex character to understand. While she stands for the societal principles of honour and justice, she advocates for revenge for her father’s death; when she calls “Hades! Persephone! Hermes of hell! Furies, I call you! Who watch when lives are murdered. Who watch when loves betray. Come! Help me! Strike back! Strike back for my father murdered! And send my brother to me…” it appears she values family unlike her mother (Electra lines 150-160). However, when it is revealed that she knows her father’s killers and that she helps with the plans to have her mother killed, her morals and value for family gets questioned. Her mother, Clytemnestra, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sadistic and adulterous woman who would stop at nothing to satisfy her lust for Aegisthus. However, this changes as the play progresses and it is revealed that she had her husband murdered as revenge for the death of their daughter that Agamemnon had sacrificed unnecessarily. At that point, it is not clear whether her claims are true or not. As a person who stands for honour and justice, Electra would be expected to advocate for peace and reconciliation in light of her father’s death but she goes for revenge. Similarly, Clytemnestra should act motherly and not deny her children the right to have a father. She does not treasure her children; and though she claims she had Agamemnon murdered for having their daughter killed, contradicts her sense of motherliness when she feels delighted that Orestes her son has been killed. She did not want him to get back home and disrupt her life in anyway whatsoever. The difference between Electra and her mother with regard to love for family, is thus revealed.
Electra is portrayed as a good person by standing for justice and honour. This is unlike her mother who appears to have ulterior motives in everything she does. When she tells Electra her reasons for having Agamemnon murdered, Electra counters her argument by telling her that a killing cannot in any way, be answered with another killing. Whilst Clytemnestra takes responsibility for actions by admitting that Agamemnon got his death from her. She says:
“your father got his death from me. From me!
I make no denial.
It was Justice who took him, not I alone.
And you should have helped if you had nay conscience.”
She has owned up to her actions but Electra is different. She points out that she is forced by evil powers to do what she does for the sake of justice. On her part, she says “By dread things I am compelled. I know that…I will not stop this violence. No.” lines 296-300. At one point, Electra sys that “Oh my friends, In times like these, Self-control has no meaning. Rules of reverence do not apply. Evil is a pressure that shapes us to itself.” This was also a case of justifying her actions in pursuit for justice and honour following her father’s death. She felt no control over her evil desires to have her father’s killers brought to justice by having them killed even after telling her mother that there was no point in killing a person to avenge another killing.
Clytemnestra could be right that Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter as far as the story goes. However, it is quite unsettling that she is happy that Orestes her son is dead. Her reaction to that news casts doubts to her initial claims that the murder of her husband was an act for revenge for the death of their daughter that her husband sacrificed to the gods. Her villainous side is also brought to the fore from her words to Electra when she finds her in the streets mourning for her father. She reveals her disgust towards her daughter’s actions once more; depicting herself as a person lacking in motherly love and patience towards her children. “Father, father, father! Your perpetual excuse—Your father got his death from me. From me! That’s right! I make no denial. It was Justice who took him, not I alone. And you should have helped if you had any conscience. For this father of yours, This one you bewail, This unique Greek, Had the heart to sacrifice your own sister to the gods.” Line 700-710 Electra’s mother believes it was wrong to have her daughter sacrificed by her dead husband and for that she had him killed. Questions on morality of such actions arise and Electra condemns her for that. Ironically, she plans to have her mother killed for killing her father; both actions acting to complicate things in the play.
The greatest differences between Electra and Clytemnestra thus stem from their beliefs and morality. Electra portrays herself as a loving person who is honourable enough to mourn a murdered father and praying for justice to prevail; revenge on the murderers. Her mother, on the other hand, is an evil person whose character and behaviour is as complicated as her family is and the morality of the story is too.
- Sophocles, ., & March, J. R. (2001). Electra. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.