ELECTRA

Mythical Greek princess

One of the two daughters of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Electra does not appear as a character in the work of Homer but has an important role in Greek drama. Both Sophocles and Euripides wrote tragedies bearing her name, and she is a central figure in the play Libation Bearers by Aeschylus. Her significant, and ultimately tragic, characteristics are her hostility toward her mother, Clytemnestra, her devotion to her brother Orestes, and her reverence for her murdered father, Agamemnon.

At the opening of Aeschylus’s play, Orestes and his traveling companion Pylades are paying homage at the tomb of Agamemnon when Electra enters, leading a chorus of women who bear urns of libations (liquid offerings). When she and Orestes meet, they share their hatred of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus and plan to kill them in revenge for their father’s murder. Electra, pretending loyalty to Clytemnestra, leaves the scene. The drama proceeds with Orestes doing the killing, and it ends with his confession of guilt and subsequent madness.

When Sophocles’ Electra opens, we learn that Electra has saved the young Orestes from their father’s murderers and has sent him to safety. Years later, supposing him dead, she is grieving over the urn that she believes holds her brother’s ashes, when Orestes himself appears beside her. Orestes then murders their mother with Electra urging him on, pleading fiercely for Orestes to strike a second blow to ensure that she is dead.

Euripides, on the other hand, makes Orestes an indecisive character with whom a stronger Electra joins to carry out the killing. Afterward, she suffers remorse, while her brother—having gone mad—is at the mercy of the Furies*. Euripides continues the story with another play, Orestes, in which Electra devotes herself to the care of her mad brother.

The noted 20th-century psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called a woman’s fixation on her father and hostility toward her mother the Electra complex. Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra (1909) and Eugene O’Neill’s drama Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) are based on the character of Electra. (See also Drama, Greek.)

* Furies female spirits of justice and vengeance

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