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by Sophocles

Summary by Michael McClain
Based on a translation by David Grene


It is morning, before the palace at Mycenae. Recalling the day he took Orestes from the hand of Electra, Orestes' tutor prods Orestes and Pylades into action. Orestes recalls the command of Apollo to avenge the death of his father 'with justice but with stealth'. He reveals his plan: the tutor will tell the house that Orestes has been killed in a chariot race. After he makes libations at his father's grave, he will arrive with an urn, supposedly containing the ashes of Orestes, to meet his foes. He has come as a purifier, a restorer of his house.

Outside the house, Electra laments the treacherous murder of her father and asks the gods to help take vengeance, pleading with them to send her brother to her. A sympathetic chorus of women seeks to console her, but Electra continues to lament: her father's murder is unavenged, her brother has not returned, she is miserable. When the women advise her 'not to breed sorrow from sorrow, she asks 'what is the natural measure of my sorrow?" If her father's murders 'shall never in their turn pay death for death in justice, then shall all shame be dead, and all men's piety.' She is surrounded by evil.

Electra tells the women that Orestes says he is going to come but has not. Chrysothemis, echoing the women, advises her to curb her anger, but she replies by asking her sister to take up the same attitude as hers. Chrysothemis warns that when Aegisthus returns, Electra will be banished to an underground cave. She is on her way to make an offering on behalf of their mother at the grave of their father. The night before, Clytemnestra dreamt that Agamemnon came to life again and at the hearth planted his scepter, which sprouted foliage to shade all the land of Mycenae. Electra forbids her to carry out her mother's command.

The women prophesy that Justice will come with vengeance soon. Hearing Electra, Clytemnestra comes out to confront her. She does not deny killing Agamemnon, but claims she was justified because he killed Electra's sister. Electra replies that Agamemnon had to make the sacrifice to compensate for killing a stag in Artemis' sanctuary. As Clytemnestra is praying to Apollo at the grave of Agamemnon, the tutor arrives with news from Phanoteus the Phocian that Orestes is dead. Electra reacts with horror. Prompted by Clytemnestra, the tutor tells the whole story of Orestes' death in a chariot race. After winning several victories at the Delphic Games, Orestes was killed when the inside hub of his chariot caught a post as he turned a corner, throwing him from the chariot and mangling his body beyond recognition.

Though acknowledging some love for Orestes, Clytemnestra tells the tutor that she is relieved that Electra's threats will now come to an end. When Clytemnestra takes the tutor into the house, Electra threatens never to enter the house again – to waste away at the gate. Chrysothemis arrives full of joy. She has discovered evidence that Orestes has visited the grave of Agamemnon – newly poured milk, fresh flowers and a lock of hair. Electra disabuses her of the thought, telling her that Orestes is dead and suggesting that someone decorated the grave in his memory. Electra asks Chrysothemis to help her kill Aegisthus, but Chrysothemis refuses, citing the danger. Orestes greets Electra, pretending to be a Phocian stranger sent by Strophius. He does not recognize Electra, but gives her the urn when she shows herself to be someone who sorrows for Orestes. Holding what she thinks are Orestes' ashes in her hands, she recalls the day she stole him to save him from being murdered, saying that she wishes he had died then. Her lament stirs Orestes to recognition and he reveals himself to her, proving his identity by a signet ring that belonged to Agamemnon. Both Electra and the women are elated.

Orestes and Electra turn to the task at hand. The tutor comes out of the house to quiet them, fearing that the plot will be discovered. He tells them that he has convinced Clytemnestra that Orestes is dead. Electra does not recognize the tutor, until Orestes introduces him to her. Promising to talk later, the tutor tells them that now is the time to act. Orestes and Pylades enter the house where Clytemnestra is alone, as Electra prays to Apollo. She will stay outside to guard against the return of Aegisthus. Soon the cries of Clytemnestra are heard from within. 'My son, pity your mother.' As Electra cheers him on from outside, Orestes finishes off his mother.

When Orestes comes out, he says that all is well if Apollo prophesied well. When the women see Aegisthus approaching, Electra sends 'the boys' back into the house to wait for him. Aegisthus arrives full of joy eager to hear the good news from the Phocian strangers. Electra tells him that they are inside with the body of Orestes. Aegisthus orders his servants to open the gates revealing a shrouded corpse on the ground. When he calls for Clytemnestra to come view the body, Orestes, in the guise of the Phocian stranger, tells him that she is near. 'You need not look elsewhere.' Lifting the shroud, Aegisthus discovers the body of Clytemnestra and soon realizes that he has stepped into a trap. 'You can only be Orestes,' he says.

Orestes orders him into the house to die in the same place that Agamemnon was killed. 'Justice will be taken on all who act above the law – justice by killing,' Orestes says, as the women celebrate the final liberation of the house of Atreus.

61 "no word is base when spoken with profit" 176 "Time is a kindly god' 945 "…there is no success without hardship Trans. David Grene in Sophocles II of the University of Chicago The Complete Greek Tragedies