I The Problem of Orestes

Sophocles' Electra has taken more than its fair share of abuse over the years. Schegal's remark that it is nothing more than a play of "good spirits and matricide" (Gellie 130) is perhaps the most widely quoted, but there are many others just as trenchant. In 1880, the normally gentile Mahaffy had to complain that, its poetic qualities notwithstanding, the play represented a "great step backwards in the history of moral" (290). Gilbert Murray, no great supporter of Sophocles in any account, condemned the play for having shown the conservative poet's preference for the old archaic heroes who "killed in the fine old ruthless way" (237). Waldock would not even allow that it was a tragedy, though he found one reason it should still be read and studied: "In what other play of the seven can we so observe the sleights of the Master" (195). These critics, and many others, are all taking aim at the same problem: the failure of the play to take the morality of the matricide seriously, or to take it up at all. This deficiency is all the more evident when Sophocles' Electra is compared to Aeschylus' Oresteia and Euripides' own Electra.1 In these plays, the matricide and its implications for the characters drawn into it are the central events around which everything else in the drama must turn.

This is another way of saying that there is a problem with Sophocles' characterization of Orestes, the unavoidable central figure in any treatment of the matricide in the inherited myth. The other two tragedians recognized that fact. Aeschylus' Orestes hesitates, needing the encouragement of his friend and Electra, to say nothing of the threats of Apollo, to help him along his way. There are the Furies to punish him, which leads to a divisive quarrel among the gods themselves as to whether there can ever be any justification for what Orestes has done. Euripides' Orestes is a pathetic coward, who finally realizes the horror of what he has been planning to do and is driven mad by it. By stark contrast, Sophocles' Orestes never breathes a single word of doubt, at least in any obvious way, and never needs or seeks reassurance.2 Worst of all, there is no unambiguous indication anywhere in the play that he will be pursued by the Furies. 3 Their absence is, as Gellie (130) put it, "thunderous." Sophocles' play ends with an unmistakable appearance of final resolution and a triumphant exit.

The best that can be said is that in Sophocles' version of the myth, the matricide is deliberately suppressed to allow greater dramatic elaboration of Electra's troubles at home.4 Accordingly, he "spends all his psychology on Electra" (Letters 245). An implication of this line of reasoning, however, is that as Sophocles ignores Orestes, he also ignores the morality of the matricide itself.5 Even if it is true that Electra is delivered from her torment by her savior brother then the play is nothing more than a melodrama.

Needless to say, Sophocles is not without his defenders on this and other counts, and scholarship on the play is as richly varied and delightfully combative as it is on most important questions in classical literature.6 Kells has performed an invaluable service for laborers in this field by classifying the variety of approaches to the play as "ironic," "justificatory", or "amoral," the difference being how each understands Sophocles to have handled the matricide.7 Kells, taken together now with Kitzinger (298-310) brings the survey of scholarship up-to-date.

My suggestion begins with the play as it appears to us. A morally blank Orestes kills his mother, and, in deliberate opposition to the Choephoroi and the Eumenides, he walks away from it unscathed. We are right to be disturbed by him, and this feeling of disruption or betrayal is what Sophocles wanted to produce. I suspect that Sophocles drew his portrait of Orestes not from the Homeric warriors of myth, but from an increasing social fact of his own day. Sophocles' Orestes is not the result of dramatic necessity, nor was he toned down in order not to distract from Electra. Orestes is a portrait of a new generation of war-hardened youth produced in Athens by its long struggle with Sparta. The Electra therefore is not just an another reworking of a traditional tale. Rather it is a richly subtle comment on the moral devastation the war was visiting upon the new generation in Athens.

1 Much time has been spent discussing which came first, Sophocles or Euripides' Electra. There are of course three possibilities: 1) Sophocles' came before, 2) came after, or 3) was performed in the same year as Euripides'. Aside from noting the obvious, I do not think anything much more definitive can be said until some more information is literally unearthed. The last effort I know of to argue, as distinct from assert, a relative chronology was Voegler in 1967, who puts Sophocles' version in 416-4, followed by Euripides' in 413. The general consensus is not to insist too much on which is the correct arrangement, even though there is a preference to put Euripides' just before Sophocles' (Kells 1-2, n.2). In any case, the argument of my article is not affected by how this question is decided, and so it will not be addressed.

2 If there is life or moral depth anywhere to be found in Orestes, many think it comes only during and after the recognition scene, where, it is held, Orestes is so touched by the sight of his sister's awful oppression that he is changed. He came to reassert justice, from which he was emotionally removed, but he learns that there is a deeply human dimension to his mission. That is, he matures. But this suspicion must somehow account for the fact that during Electra's rapturous lyrics in the recognition scene, Orestes never once deviates from his plodding iambics and never once uses a word derived from the root (Blundell 174). Far from being carried along by Electra's joy, Orestes is a no more than a droning note throughout her song, a contrast which would be obvious when the scene is sung -- as, of course, it was intended to be.

3 Along with many others, I am unconvinced by efforts to detect future punishment awaiting Orestes. Whitman (153) "There is not the sign or hint of a Fury." Similarly, Bowra (258); Letters (246); Musurillo (108); Ronnet (215); Webster (195). On the other side of the debate: Thomson (359); Winnington-Ingram I (20-6) and II (217-47), who found the Furies at work throughout the play in Electra's soul. Even if it is true that the Furies are at work in Electra's soul, what then? They would have no role in addressing the moral problem of the matricide -- unless we are to envision Electra, possessed by Furies, somehow torturing Orestes for the matricide. Winnington-Ingram II (227) perceptively remarked that if there are no Furies, then the play does not end happily: "The reverse is true. No pursuit by the Furies, then no Delphi, no Athens, no Areopagus, no acquittal, and -- above all -- no reconciliation of the Furies." His warning is on the mark, and this, I think, is precisely Sophocles' point.

4 Bates (132): Orestes is "not particularly noteworthy...and after the deed is done he shows no sign of regret." Ronnet (208-9): "Oreste, vide de toute sensibilite, n'est guere qu'une machine a tuer." Winnington-Ingram (229): "Orestes is military, cold and calculating." Letters (245): "It would have been easy to make the hero more human and interesting by showing him agonized, or at least profoundly moved by what lies before him. But Orestes, as far as we can judge, is as impassive, impersonal and (so to speak) numbly instrumental as a eunuch-executioner." Whitman (155): "He is so unlike the rest of the play in tone and character that it seems almost as if Sophocles conceived him as a sort of frame for Electra, who is the real tragic picture; the frame is formal and chaste and does not partake of the colors of the picture, but only emphasizes them, as a frame should do... [H]e is scatheless and outside all evil, and obviously more a symbol than a character."

5 Jebb, Electra (Cambridge 1894) xl-xli. Waldock (170), who scorned any attempt to find moral difficulties in the play, made a keen observation (though for a different reason from what he intended): "The problem of this play arises because it is sometimes felt that [Sophocles] should have embodied more." Kitto (132): "Though the punishment of crime may sometimes be painful, in no civilized society can it involve anything so hideous as matricide." Aylen (96) even more explicitly projected his own moral sense into the play: "I may be naive, but I believe that it is wrong to kill one's mother. I am sure Sophocles thought so too."

6 My favorite is Rose's recommendation for "those who find anything resembling punishment for Orestes in the Electra...to consult a good psychiatrist and get their wits cleared" (2). As a brief demonstration of the extreme diversity of opinion: Musurillo (19) concludes that by the end of the play "the once dishonored alien living in her father's accursed halls has shown the nobility of her seed, and through her sterling courage the works of dike are accomplished on earth." Johansen (32) wrote that "am Ende dieser dü steren Tragödie, als letzte Folge des göttlichen Auftrags, sehen wir nur einen unsicher gewordenen Jungen und eine innerlich gebrochene Frau." Trying to appease both sides, Buxton (29) suggested a compromise: "It would seem that the Electra is a play in which the significance of the ending may legitimately be molded by a director in either a positive or negative sense without his being false to the text." I prefer, nonetheless, to assert a liking for the ironic interpretation, guided by Lawton's observation that "the calm atmosphere of this piece is so alien to its plot that it finally comes to have a certain haunting horror of its own" (207). We can, I believe, peer somewhat into the adjectives "certain" and "haunting" and begin to see shapes.

7 Kells accurately described the vast majority of scholarship on the play, and provided a fairly good prediction of what would follow. A recent entry, however, defies his categories. Batchelder argues that the play is really an extended metaphor of the playwright's art.

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