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by Euripides

Summary by Michael McClain
Based on a translation by Emily Townsend Vermeule


Predawn outside of Argos: a farmer introduces himself as Electra's husband. Aegisthus gave her to him to prevent her from marrying well.

Orestes and Pylades arrive in Mycenae in disguise, charged by Apollo to avenge the death of Agamemnon. Orestes tells Pylades that he visited his father's tomb last night, sacrificing a sheep and leaving a lock of his hair. They hide as Electra approaches. She mourns the death of her father and laments her plight. When she sees Orestes and Pylades she is frightened. Orestes knows who she is but does not reveal himself. He pretends to be a messenger from Orestes seeking information about his sister. She tells him that she is married to the farmer who respects her. She remains a virgin. She is intent on killing her mother and Aegisthus. She has only one friend who might recognize Orestes, the old servant who took gave him to Strophius. She contrasts her misery with Clytemnestra's luxury. She curses Aegisthus for dishonoring the tomb of her father.

When her husband returns and invites them into the house, Electra sends for the old servant (the same one who saved Orestes) to bring food and wine. Orestes praises the Electra's husband as a worthy man. When the old man arrives with a lamb, flowers, wine and cheese, he suspects that Orestes has returned because he found the sheep, along with a lock of hair and footprints at Agamemnon's tomb that match Electra's. Electra refuses to believe that the old man can discern Orestes' presence by these signs. When Orestes comes out of the house, the old man examines him closely. He recognizes Orestes by a scar over his eye and reveals him to Electra, who is overjoyed. They plan to kill Aegisthus while he is out in a field sacrificing to the Nymphs.

Electra devises a plan to lure her mother to the cottage. She sends the old servant to Clytemnestra with news that she had a baby. After prayers to the gods, the old servant leads Orestes to Aegisthus. A bit later, Electra hears a death cry, but does not know who won until a messenger arrives to tell her that Aegisthus is dead. He describes how Aegisthus welcomed the young strangers to the sacrifice. After they slaughtered and eviscerated the calf Aegisthus found an evil omen in the entrails, predicting imminent danger. As he was bending over the entrails, he was slain by Orestes who shattered his spine with an axe. Orestes revealed himself to the guards who accepted him as their kinsman.

Orestes arrives soon after with the corpse. Electra delivers a perverse 'eulogy' recounting all the evils that Aegisthus brought to the family. They hide the body in the cottage. When Clytemnestra arrives, Orestes expresses misgivings about killing their mother, but Electra insists Apollo commanded him to do it. 'You may not play the coward now,' she tells him as he goes into the cottage.

The gods Castor and Polydeuces appear above the cottage to tell Orestes, Electra and Pylades their fates. Castor tells Pylades to take Electra as his wife and tells Orestes that he must leave Argos forever. He will be pursued by the Furies until he comes to Athens to be judged. Apollo will take the blame for the killing and the jury will divide evenly, acquitting Orestes. Menelaus and Helen will come to bury Clytemnestra. [Helen never went to Troy. Zeus fashioned a Helen-image and dispatched it to Troy.] Orestes and Electra depart in sorrow from their homeland and from each other.

Image: Electra at the Getty Villa
Texts on line:

Perseus translation by E. P. Coleridge,

The Internet Classic at M.I.T. translation by E. P. Coleridge

Greek text

Project Guttenberg, translation by Gilbert Murray, 1905