Ancient History & Civilisation



The myth of Orestes killing his mother to avenge his father goes back to Homer’s Odyssey, where it is introduced several times as a tale already well known to both the characters in the poem and the audience. Agamemnon on his triumphant return from Troy was trapped and killed by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, who subsequently assumed the throne (3.248ff., 303ff., 4.512ff.). His son Orestes, growing up in exile, returns some years later to avenge his father. Both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra are punished by death, though Homer is clearly concerned to play down the fact of matricide, which he does not actually narrate: the closest he comes to an explicit statement of Orestes’ responsibility is in a reference to the young man organizing the funeral of ‘his hateful mother and the weakling Aegisthus’ (3.310). The burial of the usurpers has just taken place when Menelaus, after years of wandering at sea, returns to the Peloponnese with Helen (the point at which Euripides’ play begins). In Homer, the gods on Olympus endorse the justice of Aegisthus’ punishment (1.29ff.), and the heroic deeds of Orestes are held up as an example to Odysseus’ son Telemachus (1.298ff.). It seems clear that the story as Homer presents it has no place for any negative consequences for Orestes, who inherits Agamemnon’s throne.

Later versions were very different. Poets who treated the legend at full length, rather than only incidentally as in Homer, were clearly anxious to increase the emotional intensity and to heighten the moral complexity. In part this was achieved by providing a justification for Clytemnestra for hating her husband: did he not sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia at the start of the war? (Homer had ignored this story: see p. 169). Pindar in a well-known passage refers to this motive: though still glorifying Orestes’ deed, he poses the dilemma about Clytemnestra: was it adulterous lust that drove her to her crime, or grief and anger at the death of her child (Pythian Odes, 11.15ff.)? Agamemnon could be represented in less than admirable terms: already in the Iliad he comments that he prefers his concubine Chryseis to his wife Clytemnestra, and in the Odyssey it is evident even from the brief references that he brought back Cassandra as a trophy of war (Clytemnestra kills her too). Still more important was the psychological and emotional potential of the matricide: this is a high point in all the dramas dealing with Orestes’ return, and even in this play, where the deed is over, the moment at which Clytemnestra bared her breast and begged her son for mercy is repeatedly referred to.

Once the act of matricide became the heart of the tale, the question arose: what are the consequences? We do not know precisely when the poets introduced the motif of Orestes being pursued by his mother’s Furies, monstrous supernatural spirits of vengeance, but it was already well established long before the tragedians took it up. The lyric poet Stesichorus (early sixth century BC) composed a poem of some length (two ‘books’) on Orestes, from which we have a few fragments. In that work Apollo gave Orestes a bow with which he was to defend himself against the Furies: this idea is recalled in the madness-scene of Euripides’ play (267ff. and note 15). The Furies pursue and persecute Orestes from land to land; whether he found refuge and purification in Stesichorus’ version, whether he was tried and acquitted in Athens in versions prior to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, are controversial questions.

At all events, Aeschylus’ great trilogy is the most important treatment of the Orestes myth, and the greatest single influence on Euripides’ Orestes. It was exactly fifty years old (458 BC), already a well-established classic. Euripides had frequently echoed and exploited it in earlier dramas (including the Electra and the Iphigenia among the Taurians); Aristophanes’ references in the Frogs suggest it was reasonably well known. In the second play of Aeschylus’ trilogy Orestes had returned to Argos with his friend Pylades, met Electra, called upon the ghost of his dead father to aid him in his mission, and killed Aegisthus through a deception. He then faces the harder task of killing his mother: their confrontation on stage is a high point. In the final scene the chorus rejoice that the rightful heir has returned and the kingdom is freed from a tyrannical yoke. Orestes is more sombre, convinced of the justice of his cause but also seeking to justify it. At the end of the play he begins to lose control of his mind, and sees the Furies rushing at him (it is generally agreed that they were invisible to the audience). In panic and despair, he runs off stage; his exile and wanderings have begun.

In the third play, Eumenides, Orestes finds refuge at Delphi with Apollo, who guarantees him protection. In this play, by a bold stroke, the Furies form the chorus, and are visibly present onstage, conversing with and angrily threatening men and gods. The bulk of the play is occupied by Orestes’ trial at Athens, judged by a jury of Athenian citizens; this provides an aetiology or ‘charter myth’ for the Athenians’ homicide court, known as the Areopagus (Athena lays down its duties in the play itself). Though Apollo is present to speak in Orestes’ defence, the role of Athena, Athens’ patron deity, is more important: she oversees the court and ensures that both sides are treated with dignity. Orestes is tried and eventually acquitted; it is clear that he is to return to his kingdom free of guilt and suffering. The Furies are placated by Athena, who guarantees them a place in Athens, as guardians of morality. The salvation of Orestes is due to an Athenian court of mortal men, not the actions of the god Apollo: Athens trumps Delphi, in a remarkable demonstration of the patriotic aspect of Attic tragedy. How much of the action in the third play is Aeschylus’ own invention is a matter of dispute.

The two Electra-plays by Sophocles and Euripides deal chiefly with the events leading up to the matricide, and only briefly with the aftermath (indeed, in Sophocles’ play there appears to be no aftermath, the dramatist having reverted to the Homeric-Pindaric tradition). It is in the Orestes that Euripides treats at full length the sufferings of Orestes after the deed is done. Even from the brief summary of earlier versions given above, we can see that he has taken up and developed some points, dropped others, and invented a number of novel elements of his own. This of course was how the tragedians always worked: but in this case the new compound is a remarkably powerful and original concoction.

The main differences in the Orestes (most of which seem likely to be Euripidean contributions) are as follows. First, instead of journeying immediately into exile, Orestes remains in Argos, sick and hallucinating, in a weakened condition which at first seems close to death. Second, whereas in Aeschylus the chorus resented the rule of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and acclaimed Orestes’ deed, in Euripides’ play the Argive population is repelled by his matricide and he is in danger of being condemned to death. Third, whereas in Aeschylus he was tried and acquitted in an Athenian court, in Euripides he is tried and condemned by the Argive assembly; and where Aeschylus’ court seemed to embody the principles of justice and even-handedness, the speakers in the assembly are biased or suborned or self-interested: there can be no prospect of a just decision being reached in this body. Euripides also introduces added complications: as in earlier plays, he asks how these events might have affected others involved, such as Menelaus and Helen, or Clytemnestra’s father, Tyndareus (a new figure on the tragic stage). Menelaus turns out to be no help, Tyndareus positively hostile: Orestes is isolated. Finally and most important, although Apollo commanded Orestes to undertake his mission, he seems now to have deserted him. While in Aeschylus we see the god comforting Orestes, sending him under escort to Athens, defying the Furies and appearing in the young man’s defence, in Euripides characters repeatedly ask what Apollo can have been thinking of to order such a crime, and Orestes in particular stresses that the god has done nothing to help him in his time of need (28, 163–5, 416–20, etc.). The play might almost be entitled ‘Waiting for Apollo’.

In the absence of the god, the human characters are thrown on their own resources. Orestes’ attempt to defend himself to Tyndareus merely succeeds in infuriating the old man further; his efforts to enlist Menelaus’ aid are a failure; his self-defence in the assembly proves futile. In the scene in which Orestes, Pylades and Electra review their situation, all seems black, and a shared suicide pact the only way out. It is at this point that Euripides begins to turn the plot in a completely new direction. Encouraged by Pylades, Orestes resolves on revenge against Menelaus and Helen; Electra contributes the chilling suggestion that they use Hermione as a hostage. From persecuted victims the trio turn into avenging marauders. The conspirators seem fired by a sinister enthusiasm for their task: although the Furies are no longer terrorizing Orestes, there is a kind of madness, that of desperation, which is infecting all three of them.

The plot-sequence can be compared with other plays of Euripides which focus on acts of revenge, especially Medea and Hecabe. There too the main character begins as a victim, winning much of the audience’s sympathy, and in the end becomes a vicious avenger. We must beware of oversimplification: Orestes in the first half of this play may be pitiable but he is no innocent; and in none of these cases does the protagonist lose our sympathy entirely, but there is a clear shift, often focused on a key point in the action (here, the moment at which Pylades makes his proposal, 1097ff.). Before this point, the audience has been encouraged to sympathize with Orestes and his companions; from this point on, the plot becomes more startling, even bizarre, the characterization more negative, and the audience response more complex and contradictory.

In Medea and Hecabe the avenger executes her plans successfully: Medea kills her children, Hecabe blinds Polymestor and kills his children. In this play the conspiracy is a débâcle: the attempt to murder Helen is frustrated, for reasons at first opaque to both the actors and the audience; the best that Orestes can do is bully and humiliate a terrified Phrygian slave. The final confrontation of Menelaus and Orestes is a crowded and highly dramatic scene: Menelaus and his supporters surrounding the palace, while Orestes, Pylades, Hermione and probably Electra are on the roof, with Orestes holding a sword at Hermione’s throat. There are threats to hurl down masonry on the attackers’ heads; torches are lit, and Orestes prepares to burn the palace to the ground. From earlier thoughts of suicide he has moved to a grander scheme of general self-destruction and slaughter (‘I shall never tire of killing evil women!’, 1590). Both the house of Atreus and the mythical tradition seem about to disintegrate, when at long last Apollo intervenes.

Horace in the Art of Poetry said that tragedians should not introduce a god unless the ‘knot’ of the plot was so difficult to unravel that divine intervention was the only possible solution. This case is a paradigm example, but also serves to illustrate some of the difficulties modern audiences have with this convention. The epiphany of a god is a magificent theatrical moment; the contrast between divine knowledge and power and human confusion is obviously effective; and the ‘plot’ of the myth, which had seemed to be going wildly off course, is magisterially directed back (more or less) to its familiar track (though some points are quirkily different: Helen is to be a deity – prematurely; Orestes is to be tried in Athens – but by gods, not by men; Neoptolemus is to die, without ever marrying Hermione). The difficulty is that the imposition of this outcome seems almost arbitrary – so much that is different, or heading toward a different goal, has happened on the human level that Apollo’s edict has a paradoxical, even a bizarre effect (particularly when Orestes is told to marry Hermione, ‘at whose throat you are presently holding your sword’). We are not told why Apollo chose not to appear before. We can hardly acquit Euripides of some mischief here; he pushes the deus ex machina convention to its absolute extreme, with the result that the final outcome seems to bear very little relation to the preceding action or the motivations and passions which brought it about. Certainly the gods have the power to do this, or whatever else they please; what such acts suggest about the relation between gods and men, or the degree to which either side understands the other, is one of the most difficult issues in the interpretation of Euripides. (Cf. General Introduction, pp. xxviii–xxxv.)

Early readers already found the Orestes a contradictory work: the ancient summary includes the comment: ‘This is one of the dramas which is most successful on the stage, but its ethics are awful; apart from Pylades everybody is bad.’ (The exception is a curious one; like Aristotle’s comment that Menelaus in this play is ‘unnecessarily bad in character’, it suggests that the audience paid particular attention to the demands of loyalty and friendship, to the question who does or does not help Orestes in his hour of need.) In modern times interpretations have been diverse. Some see the play as a drama of intense suffering leading to moral corruption, with wide implications concerning the moral and political bankruptcy of contemporary Athens (parallels with Thucydides’ History are frequently invoked, especially the historian’s famous analysis of the psychology of internal political conflict, 3.82–3). Others prefer to emphasize the bold dramatic technique, the exciting twists and turns in the plot, the sharp epigrams and clever ripostes in the dialogue, the multiple allusions to earlier drama, or the colourful costume and exotic music of the Phrygian’s scene: in this play Euripides’ innovative tendencies reach their zenith. A combination of these approaches seem desirable: to emphasize that Euripides is first and foremost a dramatist does not preclude allowing that he may have had something to say – though as always with a writer of this stature, our paraphrases and critical formulae do scant justice to the intellectual and emotional challenge of this extraordinary work.


ELECTRA, daughter of Agamemnon

HELEN, wife of Menelaus

CHORUS of women of Argos

ORESTES, son of Agamemnon

MENELAUS, brother of Agamemnon

TYNDAREUS, father of Clytemnestra

PYLADES, friend of Orestes

MESSENGER, an old servant of Agamemnon

HERMIONE, daughter of Helen

A PHRYGIAN, a slave attending on Helen


SERVANTS attending on Menelaus, Tyndareus and Helen

[The scene is the palace at Argos. ORESTES is lying asleep on a mat up against the palace wall. ELECTRA sits near his feet.]

ELECTRA:1 There is no tale so terrible to tell, no suffering or affliction sent by the gods, that man’s nature may not have to shoulder its burden. Tantalus, whose fortune men envied (I make no judgement of his fate), the son, they say, of Zeus, hovers in the air, dreading the rock that hangs above his head.

He suffers this punishment, men say, because, when he sat at table with the gods and enjoyed honour equal with their own, a mortal with gods, he did not govern his tongue – shameful madness! This man fathered Pelops, whose son was [10] Atreus, for whom the goddess Strife carding her wool spun threads of war between him and Thyestes, his brother. Why must I retrace things that should not be told? Atreus (I pass over what happened next) fathered the glorious Agamemnon, if glorious he was, and Menelaus by a Cretan mother, Aerope. Menelaus married Helen, detested by the gods, but King Agamemnon took Clytemnestra to wife in a marriage that [20] brought renown in the eyes of all Greeks. Three daughters – Chrysothemis,2 Iphigenia and I – and a son, Orestes, were born to him by one woman, a woman most impious, who killed her husband, ensnaring him in a net from which there was no escape. I am a maiden and cannot speak of her motives3 without shame; I draw a veil over that for any who will to consider. There is no point in accusing Phoebus4 of wrongdoing in urging Orestes to kill the mother who gave him birth, an act not seen as glorious by every Greek. But kill [30] her he did in obedience to the god, and I, so far as a woman could, shared in the murder.5

And so he lies here, where he has fallen on his mat, my poor Orestes, wasted by the savage illness that racks him and tormented to madness by his mother’s blood. Reverence prevents me from naming the goddesses whose terrors plague him, the Kindly Ones.6 This is the sixth day since his mother died by slaughter and her body received the purification of [40] fire, but in this time no food has passed his lips, no water scoured his body, and, when his sickness gives him respite, wrapped inside his cloak he weeps with mind unclouded, but at other times he leaps up with flying feet from his pallet and acts like a young horse released from the yoke. It is the decree of this city of Argos7 that no one should receive us, the matricides, under his roof or at his hearth, or give us words of welcome. This is the appointed day when the citizens of Argos will give their separate votes to determine if we two [50] must die by stoning. There is one hope we have of not being killed: Menelaus has come to this land from Troy and occupies the harbour of Nauplion with his ship. He is anchored there off-shore, having roamed, homeless, for many a day since leaving Troy. But Helen, that cause of many deaths, he has sent ahead to our house, having waited for the night in case someone whose sons met their end at Troy should see her [60] arriving by day and set about stoning her. Now she is inside and weeps for her sister and the misery of her house. And yet she has some consolation for her sorrows: the child she left at home when she sailed to Troy, the maiden Hermione, whom Menelaus brought from Sparta and entrusted to my mother’s fostering,8 makes her rejoice and forget her woes.

I look down the long road in case I shall see Menelaus at some point; for in every other way we ride on a weak anchor, if our safety does not come from him. A house that knows [70] misfortune is in desperate straits.

[HELEN emerges from the palace entrance.]

HELEN: Maiden for all too long a day,9 Electra, poor girl, how do you and your brother fare? Speak to me – I shall not be contaminated,10 as I attribute the crime to Phoebus. And yet I weep at Clytemnestra’s death, the sister I have not set eyes on since the day I sailed to Troy, as sail I did through a fate of divine madness. Now left abandoned, I lament my fortune. [80]

ELECTRA: Helen, why should I describe to you what you can see with your own eyes? Here I sit, keeping sleepless watch over a wretched corpse (for his breath is so slight I count him a corpse); his sufferings, though, I lay to no man’s charge. But here you are, you the fortunate one and your fortunate husband, appearing before us in our misfortune.

HELEN: How long has he been lying on his bed?

ELECTRA: Since he shed his mother’s blood.

HELEN: Poor man! Poor woman – how she died! [90]

ELECTRA: Such is his state that his sufferings have overwhelmed him.

HELEN: In heaven’s name, maiden, would you do something for me?

ELECTRA: Yes, as far as I can while looking after my brother.

HELEN: Are you willing to go for me to my sister’s tomb?

ELECTRA: My mother’s – can you ask me this? Why?

HELEN: To take a lock of hair I have cut and drink-offerings from me.

ELECTRA: Is it not right for you to visit the tomb of a loved one?

HELEN: No; I am ashamed to show myself to the people of Argos.

ELECTRA: Now, at last, you see things correctly, but the day you left your home behind was one of shame.

HELEN: Your words are just but hardly spoken like a friend. [100]

ELECTRA: What is this shame you feel at facing the Mycenaean folk?

HELEN: I fear the fathers of those who died at Troy.

ELECTRA: Yes, it is a fearful thing to hear your name shouted by all in Argos.

HELEN: Do me this favour now and set me free from fear!

ELECTRA: I could not look at my mother’s tomb.

HELEN: But it would bring disgrace on you if slaves brought these gifts.

ELECTRA: Why do you not send your daughter Hermione?

HELEN: It looks bad if a young woman makes her way through a crowd.

ELECTRA: And yet she would be showing a child’s gratitude to a parent dead.

[110] HELEN: Yes, I will send my daughter; you are quite right.

Hermione, child, come out of the palace!

[HERMIONE enters.]

Take in your hands these drink-offerings and this hair of mine, go to Clytemnestra’s tomb and pour upon it honey mixed with milk and the ruddy froth of wine. Stand on the top of the burial mound and speak these words: ‘Your sister Helen presents you with these drink-offerings, because she is afraid to approach your tomb and dreads the Argive mob.’ [120] Bid her look kindly on you and me, and on my husband, and on this wretched pair, ruined by the god. Promise her all the gifts to the dead that duty and the hour prescribe for me to perform for a sister. Go, my child, make haste, pour the libations on her tomb and return with all speed!

[HERMIONE exits offstage,11 HELEN re-enters the palace.]

ELECTRA: O Nature, what a curse you are to mankind! See how she has cut off only the tips of her hair, leaving her beauty intact – the Helen of old! May the gods look on you [130] with loathing for the ruin you have brought on me, on this man, and on all of Greece!

[The CHORUS of Argive women is seen approaching the palace.]

Oh, I am so miserable! Here come my friends who will sing with my lament.12 Soon they will waken the one who is at peace here and drown my eyes in tears, when I see my brother struck by madness. O women, good friends, approach quietly, make no noise, tread softly!13 It is kind of you to show this concern but no more, please!

[In the lyric exchange that follows ELECTRA and the CHORUS sing their lines.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: Hush, hush! Lightly tread on sandal, make no noise! [140]

ELECTRA: Over there, go over there, please, far from his bed!

CHORUS: See, I do as you say.

ELECTRA: Ah, my friend, let your voice be like the breath blown through the delicate reeds of a pipe!

CHORUS: See how gently I sigh as I approach his bed.

ELECTRA: Yes, like that! Come close, come close, approach gently, gently come! Tell me your purpose in coming here. This sleep in [150] which he lies was long in coming.

CHORUS [Antistrophe]: What is his condition? Dear friend, speak to us in turn. What news should I report?

ELECTRA: He is still alive, but draws his breath in short gasps.

CHORUS: What are you saying? Poor man!

ELECTRA: You will be my ruin, if you awaken his eyes from the precious boon of sleep he has won.

CHORUS: Poor man, how I pity him for the abominable deed heaven prompted him to do! [160]

ELECTRA: What labours he endures! Unjust the speaker, unjust the words he uttered that day when on Themis’ tripod Loxias decreed my mother’s death – unnatural deed!

CHORUS [Strophe]: Do you see? He stirs beneath his cloak!

ELECTRA: Yes, you wretch, by crying out you have forced him out of his sleep!

CHORUS: No, I took him to be asleep still!

ELECTRA: Leave me, leave this house! Wend your way back with [170] circling steps that make no noise!

CHORUS: He is inclined yet to sleep.

ELECTRA: You are right. O Night, sovereign Lady, who bestow on long-suffering men your gift of sleep, from Erebus come forth! Come to the house of Agamemnon, on sweeping wing come! We are ruined, [180] ruined by our sorrows and the fate we endure!

[To the CHORUS:] You make a noise! Sh! Sh! Guard your lips, my friends, make no sound, keep away from his bed and let him enjoy undisturbed the boon of sleep!

CHORUS [Antistrophe]: Tell me, what end to this suffering can he expect?

ELECTRA: Death, death, what else? Not even food stirs any desire in him.

[190] CHORUS: Then the event is all too clear!

ELECTRA: Phoebus has marked us down for sacrifice by decreeing that we spill a mother’s blood in revenge for a father’s – wretched and unnatural deed!

CHORUS: A just deed!

ELECTRA: A shameful one! O mother that gave me birth, you killed and were killed in turn, and you destroyed our father and these [200] children of your own blood. We are ruined, ruined, virtual corpses! This man is among the dead and, as for me, who have no part in marriage or children, the greater part of life has gone, as I wretchedly drag out my days to eternity in groans and tearful lamentation shrouded by night.

CHORUS-LEADER: Electra, maid, you are at your brother’s side, take care that he has not died without your knowledge; I am [210] distressed to see him lie there so limp.

ORESTES [waking]: O beloved enchantment of sleep, my ally against sickness, how precious and timely was your coming to me! O Oblivion from suffering, lady divine, how wise a goddess you are, how often invoked by those in distress! How comes it that I came here? How did I find this place? I forget, I can’t recall my past thoughts.

ELECTRA: O dearest, how your falling asleep gave me joy! Should I take hold of you and lift you up?

ORESTES: Take me, yes, take hold of me, and wipe the thick foam from my wretched lips and eyes. [220]

ELECTRA : There we are; sweet is the slavery and one that brings me no shame, to tend a brother with a sister’s hand.

ORESTES: Come close and support me; sweep the matted hair from my face; my eyes see only dimly.

ELECTRA: O poor head of hair, so marred! How savage your looks are after so many days without washing!

ORESTES: Lay me back on the mat. When the disease of madness leaves me, I become nerveless, with no strength in my limbs.

[ELECTRA lays him down.]

ELECTRA: There you are. When a man is ill, having a bed to lie on is like having a friend – it may be a place of pain but it is necessary to him. [230]

ORESTES: Raise me up once more, shift my body round! Helplessness makes patients hard to please.

ELECTRA: Do you want to set foot on the ground and take a step at last? Change brings pleasure in all things.

ORESTES: Yes! This has the semblance of health; and the semblance is what matters, even if it falls short of the truth.

ELECTRA: Well, listen to me now, my dearest brother, while the Furies allow you to think rationally.

ORESTES: You mean to tell me something new. If it is good, you do me a kindness; if it tends to my harm, my cup of sorrow is filled already. [240]

ELECTRA: Menelaus, your father’s brother, has returned; his oared ship rests at anchor in Nauplia.

ORESTES: What do you say? He has come, a light to shine on my woes and yours, the kinsman who owes a debt of gratitude to our father?

ELECTRA: He has come [she extends her right hand to ORESTES] (take this assurance of my words), bringing Helen with him from the walls of Troy.

ORESTES: If he’d escaped with his life alone, he would be more enviable; if he brings his wife as well, he comes with a cargo of terrible harm.

ELECTRA: The daughters Tyndareus fathered were stamped [250] with reproach and infamy throughout Greece.

ORESTES: Then do not imitate bad women – this is within your power – and make sure these are your thoughts, not just your words!

[Suddenly ORESTES’ manner changes, and he begins to jerk about in agitation.]

ELECTRA: Oh no – your eyes are rolling, Brother!14 You have swiftly changed to madness, from being lately sane!

ORESTES: O Mother, I beg you, do not set on me those maidens with gory eyes and snaky hair! There, there they are beside me, leaping at me!

ELECTRA: Stay on your bed and do not tremble, poor man! You see nothing of this vision you fancy is so clear to your eye!

[260] ORESTES: Phoebus, they will kill me, with their dog-faces and gorgon-eyes, these priestesses of the dead, goddesses of terror!

ELECTRA: I will not let you go! I will hold you close to me and stop you leaping into the abyss of sorrow!

ORESTES: Let me go! You are one of my Furies and clasp me round the waist to cast me into Tartarus!

ELECTRA: O pity me, pity me, what help can I find, now that the gods are numbered among my enemies?

ORESTES: Give me my horn-tipped bow,15 gift of Loxias, with which Apollo told me to ward off the goddesses, if they sought [270] to terrify me with their frenzy of madness. One of them shall feel the wound, a goddess shot by mortal hand, if she does not quit my sight! Are you not listening? Don’t you see the feathered arrows about to fly from my far-shooting bow? Aha! Away with you now! Soar up to the heavens on your wings and find fault with Phoebus’ oracles!

Oh, what now? I am wandering without any sense, breathing hard from the lungs! Where have I leaped to from this pallet, where? For once more I see calm descending on the stormy waves!16

[280] Sister, why do you weep with head covered by your cloak? I am ashamed to make you share my suffering and to afflict a maiden with my malady. Do not waste away because of woes that are mine; you may have consented to it but the hand that spilt our mother’s blood was mine. I give the blame to Loxias, who urged me to commit the accursed crime and cheered me on with words but not with deeds.

I think my father, had I asked him face to face whether I should kill my mother, would have begged me earnestly, clasping my chin,17 never to thrust a sword through my [290] mother’s throat, as this would not make him regain the light of life and would cause me to drain such a cup of woe in misery.

Uncover your head this instant, my sister, and stop weeping, though our state is wretched indeed. When you see me in despair, be physician to my irrational panic and give comfort! And when you give way to sorrow, I must be at your side and restrain you with gentle words. These are the ways of helping one another that bring honour to friends. Now, poor [300] girl, go inside the palace, lie down and give sleep to your sleepless eyes; take food and bathe yourself. For if you falter, or catch some illness through nursing me, I am ruined. You are the only helper I have, and others, as you see, have abandoned me.

ELECTRA: Never shall I leave you! With you shall I choose to live or to die. They amount to the same thing; if you die, what shall I, a woman, do? How shall I have a secure life on my own, with no brother, no father, no loved one? But if this is your wish, I must do it. But lie back on your pallet, and do [310] not be too troubled by terrors that hound you from your bed, but stay where you are. Whether a man is ill or merely imagines it, weariness of body and spirit afflict him.

[ELECTRA goes inside and ORESTES lie back on his mat.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: O you terrible goddesses18 who run on winged feet, whose lot it is to revel amid tears and lamentation where no Bacchants dance, you dark Eumenides, who ride the far-spreading [320] sky seeking retribution for blood spilled, retribution for murder, on bended knee I implore, I implore you, let Agamemnon’s son forget the frenzy of madness that drives him astray!

Poor man, what a pitiful task you were set, a task that, once attempted, brought you to ruin, when you accepted words chanted by [330] Phoebus from his tripod on the sacred ground where, men say, is his innermost sanctuary at earth’s navel.

[Antistrophe:] O Zeus, what pitiable suffering, what bloody trial approaches that drives you onward, man of sorrows? Tears on tears he sends upon you, some spirit of vengeance dancing into the house and driving you into a frenzy because of your mothers blood. Tears of pitiful lamentation fall from my eyes, from my eyes! Great happiness [340] does not remain constant among men; for a god rends it, like the sail of a fast ship, and overwhelms it in fearful disaster, as a ship is engulfed by the furious, deadly waves of the sea. For what other house deserves my honour before that of Tantalus, that derives from wedlock with gods?19

But here I see the king, royal Menelaus, approaching in grand luxury20 that proclaims to the eye his descent from the blood of [350] one of Tantalus’ line. Hail, you who sailed with ships a thousand strong to Asia’s land! Prosperity is your own companion, for with heaven’s blessing you have fulfilled your prayers!

[MENELAUS enters with attendants.]

MENELAUS: My house, I look upon you with joy now I have returned from Troy, yet the sight brings me grief as well. For never yet have I set eyes on another house so encircled by wretched woes. The unhappy end of Agamemnon was known [360] to me, as my ship was approaching Malea; from the waves Glaucus, son of Nereus,21 sea-god whose prophecies to mariners never fail, gave me report, speaking these words face to face before me: ‘Menelaus, your brother lies dead and has received the final ablutions of his wife.’ This brought floods [370] of tears to me and my crew. But when I landed at Nauplia, expecting to clasp Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, in a warm embrace, and his mother, as still enjoying good fortune, I heard from a seafaring man how Tyndareus’ daughter had been foully murdered. Now tell me, young women, where he is, Agamemnon’s son, who dared to do such a terrible deed. He was just a baby in Clytemnestra’s arms that day I left my palace, bound for Troy, so I wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him.22

ORESTES [from his sick-bed, behind MENELAUS]: Here I am, Menelaus, the Orestes you inquire about. Freely I will testify [380] to my woes. But as prelude to my supplication I clasp your knees, fastening the leafless prayers23 of my lips. Save me from disaster! You have arrived in the very nick of time.

MENELAUS: Gods, what sight is this! What ghost do I see?

ORESTES: A good description; my sufferings rob me of life, though I see the sunlight.

MENELAUS: Poor fellow, how wild you look, with matted hair!

ORESTES: It is not what you see that disfigures me but what I have endured.

MENELAUS: Your eyes have no moisture in them – how fearsome your stare is!

ORESTES: My body has gone; only my name remains to me. [390]

MENELAUS: Ah, your appearance is ugly beyond my imagining!

ORESTES: Here I am, a wretched mother’s murderer!

MENELAUS: So I have heard; spare your words; say little of that vile act.

ORESTES: I will be sparing, though my fortune is not niggardly with horrors!

MENELAUS: What is it that ails you? What sickness is destroying you?

ORESTES: Awareness:24 the knowledge that I have done a terrible deed.

MENELAUS: What is your meaning? Wisdom lies in clarity, not obscurity.

ORESTES: Grief is what chiefly is destroying me …

MENELAUS: A goddess to be feared indeed but still there is a remedy against her.

ORESTES: … and madness, as punishment for spilling my mother’s blood.() 400()

MENELAUS: When did you begin to lose your senses? On what day did it start?

ORESTES: The day when I raised a grave over my wretched mother.

MENELAUS: At home or when you kept watch at her pyre?

ORESTES: Out of doors, as I waited for the gathering up of her bones.

MENELAUS: Was anyone else standing by to support you?

ORESTES: Pylades,25 who shared in the bloodshed of my mother’s killing.

MENELAUS: What kind of phantoms cause this sickness of yours?

ORESTES: I thought I saw three maidens resembling Night.

MENELAUS: I know the women you speak of but have no wish to name them.

ORESTES: Yes, they are the Dread Ones; you are wise to avoid [410] naming them.

MENELAUS: They are the ones who drive you mad with kindred blood.

ORESTES: Oh, how I fear their pursuit that hounds me in my misery!

MENELAUS: Terrible suffering afflicts those whose deeds are terrible – it is no wonder.

ORESTES: But I have a way of ending my affliction …

MENELAUS: Do not speak of death! That is no wise course of action.

ORESTES: Phoebus, whose order it was that I perform my mother’s murder.

MENELAUS: Little understanding he showed of justice or right!

ORESTES: We are the gods’ servants, whatever the gods are.

MENELAUS: And does Loxias not shield you from your torments?

ORESTES: For the moment he delays; such is the nature of the [420] gods.

MENELAUS: How long is it since your mother breathed her last?

ORESTES: Six days now; her funeral pyre is yet warm.

MENELAUS: How little delay they showed, these goddesses, in avenging your mother’s blood!

ORESTES: A man does not show true wisdom in abusing loved ones.26

MENELAUS: What benefit is it to you that you have avenged a father?

ORESTES: None yet; but delay I count the same as inaction.

MENELAUS: What of Argos’ people – how do they view you after this act?

ORESTES: They so hate me that none will speak to me.

MENELAUS: Are your hands yet cleansed of blood, as custom prescribes?

ORESTES: No; I am barred from every house I visit. [430]

MENELAUS: Which citizens are seeking to banish you?

ORESTES: Oeax, who still feels hatred for my father because of what happened at Troy.27

MENELAUS: I understand; he wants to punish you for the spilling of Palamedes’ blood.

ORESTES: And this was none of my doing; I am being ruined at third hand.

MENELAUS: What other enemies do you have? Some of Aegisthus’ friends, perhaps?

ORESTES: Yes, they insult me; Argos hears them at this moment.

MENELAUS: Do the Argives let you keep Agamemnon’s sceptre?

ORESTES: Hardly, seeing that they no longer want to let me live!

MENELAUS: What action have they taken? Do you have some reliable news to tell me?

ORESTES: This day shall see me condemned. [440]

MENELAUS: Then why aren’t you crossing the boundaries of the land to make your escape?

ORESTES: I am encircled by shields of bronze.

MENELAUS: Are these private enemies in arms or Argos’ full complement of warriors?

ORESTES: It is the whole city, and they want my death; there you have it.

MENELAUS: My poor friend, you have plumbed the depths of misfortune!

ORESTES : My hope lies in you; you are my refuge from disaster. You come in prosperity to one in misery, so give part of your [450] good fortune to one of your own family. Do not take and hoard your blessings, but take your share of troubles, too, by paying back where duty requires the services my father did to you. Friends whose friendship fails in time of trouble are friends in name, but not in deed.

CHORUS-LEADER: Here comes Tyndareus28 the Spartan in cloak of black, toiling along on aged feet, his hair shorn in mourning for his daughter.

ORESTES: I am done for, Menelaus! Here comes Tyndareus towards me, and, after what I have done, he more than any [460] other is the man whose eye I dread to meet.

For when I was a baby, he was the one who brought me up, showing his love in many things he did, carrying me around in his arms as ‘Agamemnon’s son’, with Leda at his side, and honouring me no less than the Sons of Zeus. O wretched heart and soul of mine, I have made them no honourable return! What veil of darkness can I use to mask my face? What cloud can I spread before me, to escape the old man’s piercing eye?

[TYNDAREUS enters with attendants.]

TYNDAREUS [to CHORUS]: Where, where can I find Menelaus, [470] my daughter’s husband? When I was pouring libations on Clytemnestra’s tomb, I heard that he had come safe to Nauplia with his wife after many a year. Lead me to him! I want to approach his right hand and clasp it in welcome, seeing a loved one after so long!

MENELAUS: Greetings, dear old man, fellow husband with Zeus!29

TYNDAREUS: And greetings to you, Menelaus, my kinsman!

[seeing ORESTES:] Ah, there he stands before the palace,30 the mother-killing serpent, his eyes darting lightning flames that spread pollution, the creature I detest! Menelaus, do you [480] speak to one the gods abhor?

MENELAUS: Of course; he is the son of a man I loved.

TYNDAREUS: What! Someone of his stamp, the son of that hero?

MENELAUS: His son; and if he knows misfortune, he deserves our honour.

TYNDAREUS: You have forgotten what it is to be Greek, having spent so long away from Greece!

MENELAUS: It is Greek, I say, always to honour a kinsman.

TYNDAREUS: Yes, and not to wish to override the laws.

MENELAUS: Everything that is caused by compulsion is servile in wise men’s eyes.31

TYNDAREUS: Make that your guiding principle if you want; I will not accept it.

MENELAUS: Your temper together with your advanced years does not make for wisdom. [490]

TYNDAREUS: Now is the time to debate wisdom with this man.32 If right and wrong were clear to everyone, what man would possess less wisdom than this one? He neither showed regard for justice nor consulted the common law of the Greeks.33 When Agamemnon had breathed out his life, struck on the head by my daughter – a deed of utter shame (never shall I condone it) – Orestes should have prosecuted her, [500] imposed a holy blood-penalty, and expelled his mother from the home. He would have gained, in place of disaster, a name for wisdom, and he would have allied himself to the law and piety. But as it is, he shares the same fate as his mother; rightly considering her vile, he has proved viler still by committing matricide.

This question I will put to you, Menelaus: if this man were killed by the wife who shared his bed, and his son kills his mother in turn, and then the son’s son spills blood in vengeance for blood spilled, just where shall the limit of [510] these horrors lie? Our early forefathers ordained this matter well: when a man was stained with blood-guilt, they would not let him come before their eyes or cross their path, but commanded him to seek purification by means of exile, instead of seeking blood for blood. Otherwise one man, through staining his hands with the latest blood-guilt, would always make himself liable to a bloody end in turn.

What I cannot bear is a woman who despises the gods, my daughter most of all, who killed her husband; and, as for [520] Helen, your wife, never shall I praise her or even speak to her; I do not envy you your journey to the land of Troy for the sake of so false a woman. As far as my strength permits, I will stand up for the law and seek to curb this bestial and murderous impulse in men that constantly destroys both lands and cities. What possessed you in that hour, you wretch, when your mother held out her breast to you in supplication?34 I did not witness the horror of that meeting but even now at the thought of it my old eyes melt with tears of grief. Yet [530] there is one thing that gives credence to my words: you are hated by the gods and pay the penalty for your mother’s murder with your terrors and mad ravings. Why do I need to hear from other witnesses what is plain to my eyes? Be warned, then, Menelaus: do not seek to oppose the gods in your eagerness to help this man. Leave him to be stoned to death by the townsmen. My daughter has paid for her crime by dying; but she should not have died at this man’s hands. In all [540] other respects my life has been blessed, but not in daughters; here I have not known good fortune.

CHORUS-LEADER: Enviable is the man who has been blessed in his children and has avoided disaster plain for all to see.

ORESTES: Sir, your years make me afraid to address you. Let your old age, that overawes my tongue, present no barrier to my speech, and I will press on my way. But for the moment [550] I dread these grey hairs of yours.

What was the right thing for me to do? Set one argument against its antithesis; my father sowed the seed of my life, your daughter gave me birth, and was only the field that received seed from another.35 I am unholy as one who killed his mother, yet holy in the other sense, that I avenged my father. Your daughter (I am ashamed to call her ‘mother’) in selfish and lustful ‘wedlock’ took a lover. It will be my own shame I voice when I speak of hers but I will voice it nonetheless. [560] I killed him and sacrificed my mother, a sinful act but one that avenged my father.

As to your threat that my fate should be stoning, let me tell you how I have benefited all Greece by my action.36 If women become so bold as to murder their husbands, seeking refuge with their children and courting pity by baring their breasts, other women will think nothing of killing their husbands for any kind of grievance. Now by my terrible act, as you proclaim [570] it, I have done away with this practice. But justice it was that made me hate and destroy my mother, who, when her husband was absent from home and under arms, commanding the army for all the land of Greece, betrayed him and failed to keep his bed pure.

When she became aware of her error, she did not punish herself but, to avoid punishment at her husband’s hands, inflicted on my father the penalty of death.

You, sir, by fathering a woman who was vile, brought ruin upon me; it was her recklessness in robbing me of a father that made me commit matricide. You gods – no good time, I grant, to call on the gods, who pass judgement on murder – had I kept silent about her behaviour and so condoned it, [580] what would the dead man have done to me?37 Would his hatred not have caused the Furies to drive me mad? Are there goddesses ready to fight in support of my mother but not of my father, who suffered a greater injustice? And what of [590] Apollo,38 who has his seat at the earth’s navel and dispenses his oracles most sure? It was in obedience to his word that I killed my mother. Treat him as the sinner and execute him! His was the crime, not mine! What was I to do? Has the god no power to acquit me of my guilt when I appeal to him? What escape, then, can anyone have, if he does not protect me from death after ordering me to do the deed? Oh, do not [600] say that this act was ill done; say rather that it turned out ill!

CHORUS-LEADER: It is always somewhat disagreeable to men when women become involved in their fortunes.

TYNDAREUS: Since you show so little respect in your words and will not shorten sail but rouse my heart to anger by your reply, you will stir me all the more to urge your execution. I [610] shall reckon it as a fine bonus to the task for which I came, to adorn my daughter’s tomb. I will go to the assembly of the Argive folk and set them on to stone you and your sister to death – little persuasion will the city need!

She deserves death more than you,39 for hardening your heart against your mother, incessantly filling your ears with words intended to deepen resentment, reporting as a scandal what happened to Agamemnon and her adultery with Aegisthus – may the gods of the underworld look on this with[620] loathing (for in this world too it offended the gods) – until she set the palace ablaze with fire not of the Fire-god.

Menelaus, I say this to you, and I will be as good as my word: if you place any value on my enmity and my connection by marriage, do not shield this man from death, in defiance of the gods, or else do not set foot on Spartan soil! These are my words and note them well; do not choose friends who flout the gods’ will, while thrusting away friends who show them more reverence.

Servants, accompany me away from this house!

[TYNDAREUS leaves with attendants.]

ORESTES: Go! I want the words I have yet to say to reach this [630] man’s ears unhampered, escaping you and your old tongue! Menelaus, why do you walk around in anxious thought, pacing the double paths of some dilemma?

MENELAUS: Leave me alone! I am reflecting on a problem and after what has happened I’m at a loss which way to turn.

ORESTES: Do not come to a hasty decision; listen to what I have to say and then make your deliberations.

MENELAUS: Have your say; you are right: silence is sometimes preferable to speech, and speech sometimes to silence.

ORESTES: Then I will speak. A long speech is better than a short one and more clearly understood. [640]

Give me nothing that belongs to you, Menelaus, but rather repay what you received as my father’s gift. I do wrong; for this wrong’s sake I ought to gain a wrong from you. For Agamemnon my father did wrong in mustering the Greeks and going to Troy: it was not his own offence but his attempt to heal the offence and wrong your wife had done. He sold [650] his life in true fashion, as friends should do for friends, toiling with shield at your side to help you win back your spouse. This is what you gained there, so now pay me back in kind, toiling for a single day, not for ten years on end, and standing at our side to win our safety.

This one kindness you should render me in return for mine to you. As for the spilling of my sister’s blood that Aulis [660] claimed, I do not grudge you this; I do not ask that you kill Hermione.40 You must have the advantage over me, when my circumstances are as they now are, and I must show forgiveness. Grant my life to my wretched father; if I die, I will leave his house without an heir. ‘Impossible,’ will be your reply. Just so: it is when disaster strikes that friends should help friends. When the gods are generous, what need is there of friends? Their help suffices when willingly given. Every Greek believes that you love your wife; I do not say this out of flattery to win your favour. In her name I beg you – oh, how [670] wretched I am, to what depths have I sunk! And yet, I must soldier on; it is for my whole house that I make this entreaty – o uncle, brother of my father, imagine that it is he who hears this,41 the dead one below the earth, and his spirit that hovers above you and speaks the words I speak! You have heard my words, my claim for recompense as I hunt for salvation, a prize that all men seek, not I alone.

CHORUS-LEADER: I too, woman though I am, make my [680] humble appeal to you to help those in need; it lies in your power.

MENELAUS: Orestes, I have full respect for your status and I want to help you shoulder the burden of your woes. Indeed, it is right that kinsmen should aid kinsmen in clearing troubles from their path, if a god grants the power, taking the lives of enemies or sacrificing their own in death. But the power – this is the gift I want from the gods! I have returned with a single spear in hand and not one ally, a wanderer beset by countless troubles, and scant is the help I can count on from my [690] remaining friends. In battle we could not overcome Pelasgian Argos, but if we were able to prevail with soft words – this is the hope we have now. For when the people in angry mood turn to violence, it is as if one has to quench a raging fire; but [700] should one gently yield to their tension, accommodating its strength, and keep watch to choose the right moment, their storm should lose its force; and when it subsides, you would easily win them round to any course you please.

I will go and try to persuade Tyndareus and the city on your behalf to show moderation.42 For the gods have no liking for zeal that is excessive, nor have citizens. What I must do (and this is the plain truth) is save you by wisdom, not by [710] defiance of those who are stronger. I would not save you by armed force, the hope, perhaps, you cherish: it is no easy thing to triumph with a single spear over the troubles that afflict you.

[Exit left, in the same direction as TYNDAREUS earlier.]

ORESTES [calling after MENELAUS]: You contemptible creature, useless in championing friends except when it comes to leading an army to win back a woman, are you turning away from me, shunning me? Have you forgotten Agamemnon’s ties of [720]blood? O Father, you have no friends, it seems, now that Fortune has deserted you! Ah, I have been betrayed, no more have I hopes of any refuge from the Argives’ penalty of death! For this man was my haven of safety.

But here I see Pylades, dearest of men, approaching from Phocis at a run – joyous sight! A man you can trust in trouble is a sight more welcome than calm to a sailor.

[Enter PYLADES43 from the right side of the stage.]

PYLADES: I came through the town with more than usual haste, hearing that there was an assembly of the citizens and, indeed, seeing it with my own eyes. But what does this mean? How [730] are you? What is your condition, dearest of comrades to me, and of friends and kinsmen? You are all of these to me.

ORESTES: I am ruined, to tell you my woes in brief.

PYLADES: Then your ruin will bring mine too; friends share each other’s fortunes.

ORESTES: Menelaus has shown himself a traitor to me and to my sister …

PYLADES: It is no surprise that a bad woman’s husband should prove bad.

ORESTES: As far as his debt to me is concerned, it is the same as if he had not come.

PYLADES: Do you mean he actually has set foot in this land?

ORESTES: Yes, finally; but in no time he was convicted of treachery towards his own kin. [740]

PYLADES: And did he bring his shameless wife on his ship?

ORESTES: He did not bring her here; rather she brought him.44

PYLADES: Where is she, the woman who single-handedly destroyed so many Greeks?

ORESTES: In my house, assuming it can still be called mine.

PYLADES: What appeal did you make to your father’s brother?

ORESTES: That he should not stand by while my sister and I were executed by the townsfolk.

PYLADES: In heaven’s name, what did he say to this? I want to know!

ORESTES: He was circumspect, as false friends usually are with friends.

PYLADES: What kind of excuse was he seeking to use? This will tell me the whole story.

ORESTES: That fellow had come, the father of those magnificent daughters. [750]

PYLADES: Tyndareus, you mean; he was full of anger against you, no doubt, because of his daughter.

ORESTES: You are right; and Menelaus chose this man as his kinsman before my father.

PYLADES: He did not dare to stand firm and help you shoulder your burden?

ORESTES: No, he was not born to wield a spear but to cut a dash among women.

PYLADES: Then you are in dire straits indeed; does it also follow that you must die?

ORESTES: It is for the citizens of Argos to cast their votes on the charge of murder.

PYLADES: What will be determined? Tell me! I am afraid!

ORESTES: Death or life; no long description for matters of some length.

PYLADES: Then leave this house and flee, taking your sister with you!

ORESTES: Don’t you see? We are guarded everywhere by sentinels. [760]

PYLADES: I saw the streets of the city fenced off by armed men.

ORESTES: We find ourselves surrounded, like a city that endures an enemy siege.

PYLADES: Now consider my state as well; for like your own my life is at an end.

ORESTES: At whose doing? This evil will cap my own.

PYLADES: Strophius drove me from my home; my father’s anger has made me an exile.

ORESTES: Was the charge he brought against you a private one or did it concern the people?

PYLADES: He claimed that I aided you in killing your mother, calling me unholy.

ORESTES: Poor man, it seems my misfortunes will bring you pain as well.

PYLADES: I am no Menelaus; I must bear these afflictions.

ORESTES: Are you not afraid that Argos may seek your death as [770] well as mine?

PYLADES: It is not those men but the land of Phocis that has the right to punish me.

ORESTES: The people are to be feared when led by unscrupulous men.

PYLADES: But when they choose honest ones, they always receive honest counsel.

ORESTES: Well, then; we must confer.

PYLADES: What is the crucial point?

ORESTES: What if I should go and tell the citizens …

PYLADES: That your action was just?

ORESTES: … avenging my father?

PYLADES: I fear they will give you a warm reception.

ORESTES: Then should I cower and meet my death in silence?

PYLADES: That would be no end for a man.

ORESTES: What should I do, then?

PYLADES: Have you any hope of life, if you stay here?


PYLADES: And if you go, is there some prospect of escaping death?

ORESTES: It is possible, no more.

PYLADES: Then is this not preferable to staying? [780]

ORESTES: Should I go, then?

PYLADES: Yes; if you die in such a way, it will be a more honourable death.

ORESTES: You are right; this way I escape the charge of cowardice.

PYLADES: More than if you stay here.

ORESTES: And my cause is just.

PYLADES: Put your trust only in what men think of this.

ORESTES: And somebody might pity me …

PYLADES: Your noble birth counts strongly in your favour.

ORESTES: … resenting my father’s death.

PYLADES: All this is plain for men to see.

ORESTES: I must go; only a coward chooses death without glory.

PYLADES: Bravely spoken!

ORESTES: We shouldn’t tell my sister about this, should we?

PYLADES: In heaven’s name, no!

ORESTES: It would certainly result in tears.

PYLADES: And would this not be a serious omen?

ORESTES: Obviously, silence is better.

PYLADES: And you will profit by saving time.

ORESTES: There is just one stumbling block I face …

[790] PYLADES: What is this new problem you raise now?

ORESTES: I fear the goddesses may grip me with madness.

PYLADES: But I will care for you.

ORESTES: It is unpleasant for someone to touch a sick man.

PYLADES: Not when it is my hands that are laid on you.

ORESTES: Take care you do not catch my madness!

PYLADES: Don’t let that trouble you!

ORESTES: You will not shrink, then?

PYLADES: Shrinking is a great offence in a friend.

ORESTES: Lead on, then, pilot of my steps …

PYLADES: This service of care is one my heart gives freely.

ORESTES: … and guide me to my father’s tomb!

PYLADES: What is your reason for this?

ORESTES: I intend to ask him as a suppliant to save me.

PYLADES: This is a just claim.

ORESTES: But may I not see my mother’s tomb!

PYLADES: No friend was she. But hurry, or else the Argive vote may destroy you first, and cling to me with your sick and [800] feeble frame. I will bear you through the town without shame, paying scant attention to the rabble. Where shall I show myself your friend, if I fail to support you in terrible misfortune?

ORESTES: That’s why men say: ‘Get yourself friends, not just kin.’ A man whose soul is one with your own, though he be not kin, is a better friend for a man to have than any number of blood-relatives.

[ORESTES and PYLADES leave together.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: The great prosperity and prowess of the house of Atreus stood proud throughout Greece and by the banks of Simois; but now their good fortune is reversed once more. So it has been ever [810] since the ancient misfortune of that house,45when on Tantalus’ sons came strife over the golden lamb, as royal children were given most piteously to slaughter and feasting. Hence it is that trouble on trouble, exchanging blood for blood, ever pursues the two sons of Atreus.

[Antistrophe:] Not noble was that noble act46to pierce a parent’s throat with fire-forged weapon and to display to the sun’s [820] brilliance a sword blackened with gore!

To do wrong and yet be right is meretricious impiety, the delusion of wicked men. For in fear of death the daughter of Tyndareus, miserable woman, cried out: ‘Child, you dare a deed of sacrilege in killing your mother! Do not assume a cloak of everlasting dishonour in paying the homage due to a father!’ [830]

[Epode:] What sickness is worse, what rouses greater pity or tears than a son’s shedding on the ground his mother’s blood? Having done such a deed, he is tormented by madness, a prey for the Furies to hunt, and panic whirls in his darting eyes, Agamemnon’s son!

Wretched was that youth, when, seeing his mother’s breast appear from her gold-woven robe, he struck her down like a beast at the altar, [840] to requite his father’s sufferings.

[ELECTRA comes out of the palace.]

ELECTRA: Women, can poor Orestes have fled from the palace here, overcome by heaven-sent madness?

CHORUS-LEADER: He has not; he has gone before the assembled people of Argos.

ELECTRA: Oh! What has he done? Who persuaded him?

CHORUS-LEADER: Pylades; but this messenger, it seems, will soon tell us what was decided there about your brother. [850]

[A MESSENGER,47 an elderly man, enters.]

MESSENGER: Daughter of Agamemnon, lady Electra, hear the sorrowful words I bring.

ELECTRA: Ah, I am ruined! Your speech is plain.

MESSENGER: It has been decided this day by vote of Argos’ people that your brother and you, poor lady, are to die.

ELECTRA: Oh no! What I expected has come, the calamity I feared, long since wasting away with tears at the thought of [860] it! But what course did the trial take? What arguments put to the Argives destroyed us and ratified our deaths? Tell me, old man! Am I to die by stoning or the sword, gasping out my final breath, sharing my brother’s fate?

MESSENGER: It happened that I was coming inside the city gates from the country, eager to learn the news about you and Orestes. For I was always in the old days a loyal servant to your father: your house nurtured me, a man of humble means [870] but noble in my dealings with friends. I saw a crowd making its way to the hill and sitting down there, where men say Danaus first gathered the folk together in common session when he granted arbitration to Aegyptus.48

Seeing the assembly, I asked one of the citizens: ‘What’s the news in Argos? I hope some report of an enemy hasn’t put Danaus’ folk in a panic?’ He replied: ‘Don’t you see Orestes there coming forward to run the race for his life?’ Then I saw a sight I never looked to see, and I wish I never[880] had – Pylades and your brother moving forward together, the one downcast and limp from his sickness, the other like a brother sharing his friend’s distress and ministering to his illness with a tutor’s care.

When the assembly of the Argives was full, a herald stood up and announced: ‘Who wishes to say whether Orestes should die or not for killing his mother?’ At this Talthybius49 rose, who had served under your father when he sacked Troy. Always subservient to those in office, he spoke ambivalent [890] words, showering praise on your father but giving none to your brother, spinning to and fro words of eulogy and censure, saying that he was establishing a law that did little good to parents. Constantly he threw a flatterer’s glances at the friends of Aegisthus. That’s what his kind is like; heralds are always jumping across to the side of the prosperous; the man who has power among the citizens and holds office, that’s the one they like to cultivate.

After him royal Diomedes addressed the assembly. He counselled that they should not kill you or your brother but rather sentence you to exile out of respect for the gods. Some [900] roared in response that his advice was good, but others did not approve.

Then a fellow got to his feet, who let his tongue run free and was strong in impudence. He was an Argive and yet no true Argive,50 suborned and relying on noisy bluster and the crass licence of his tongue, yet persuasive enough to bring some evil on his listeners’ heads in the future. When a man of attractive speech but no sense persuades the people, it brings great harm to the city. But men who have intelligence and always give good advice bring benefit to the city, not immediately, perhaps, but in the long term. And this is how one [910] should view the leader; for the business is the same for the public speaker as for the man who holds office. Now this fellow told us to pelt you and Orestes to death with stones, and Tyndareus prompted him as he spoke.

Another got to his feet and started to put the opposite case to his predecessor, a fellow not handsome to the eye but manly, who did not often set foot in the town or circle of the market-place. A farmer he was, one of those who are the only mainstay of the land, shrewd and eager to come to grips[920] with words, whose life hitherto had been honest and beyond reproach. He urged us to place a wreath on the head of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, for having seen fit to avenge his father and kill a wicked woman who had forgotten the gods. Because of her actions, he said, men would no longer arm themselves and leave home to go on campaign, if those left behind were going to destroy their households from within and seduce their wives. To honest men his words seemed well chosen, and no one spoke afterwards. [930]

Then your brother came forward and said: ‘Inhabitants of Inachus’ land, I acted in your cause no less than my father’s when I killed my mother; for if the killing of men is to be a virtuous act for women, you should lose no time in dying, or you are bound to be slaves to women! And you will be doing the opposite of what you should be doing. For as things stand, the woman who betrayed my father’s bed is dead; but if you [940] actually kill me, that is an end of established custom, and one might as well be dead. For effrontery will not be in short supply.’

I thought he spoke well but he did not win over the crowd. That villain who urged that you and your brother should die won in the vote of hands. Wretched Orestes with difficulty prevailed on them not to execute him by stoning. He promised that with his own hand he would end his life and yours this very day.

Pylades, weeping, is now bringing him away from the [950] assembly, and friends accompany them, shedding tears of pity. He comes to you as a sight to wound the heart, a spectacle of misery. So make ready a sword, or noose for the neck, for you must leave the light of day. Your nobility has done you no service, nor Phoebus, sitting on his Pythian tripod; it is ruin they have brought.51

[The MESSENGER leaves. The CHORUS and ELECTRA share the lament that follows.52]

[960] CHORUS [Strophe]: Land of Pelasgus, I take the lead in lamentation, scoring my cheeks in bloody ruin with white fingers and beating my head in honour of Persephone, fair child and goddess, who rules the dead below the earth. And let the Cyclopean land53 cry out, setting shearing steel to the head,54 in lament for the woes of the house. Pity, pity comes upon us for those about to die, who once were leaders of [970] the Greek host.

[Antistrophe:] It is gone, yes, gone and passed away, the whole lineage of Pelops’ sons, and with it the pride of a house once so blessed in fortune! The envy of the gods has destroyed it, and the vote of the citizens, whose anger demands blood.

Ah, you tribes of mortal men, long-suffering and lamentable, see how fate comes on and cheats your hopes! In the long lapse of time [980] different woes afflict different men in turn, and the whole of human life defies calculation.

ELECTRA: Oh that I might come to the rock that hangs poised midway between heaven and earth suspended by golden chains, as it whirls round, a lump from Olympus’ mass, that I might cry aloud in lament to aged father Tantalus, true sire of my forebears, the calamities I have seen in his house: the winged pursuit of the horses that day when Pelops raced his team of four along the seashore and hurled [990] Myrtilus to his death in the swell of the sea, speeding onward by Geraestus’ shore where the ocean waves break in white foam. Hence it was that a curse arose, bringing much grief to my house, when that famous wonder was created, the lamb with fleece of gold, that brought ruin on Atreus rich in horses. [1000]

So it was that Strife turned round the Sun’s winged chariot, changing his westward course through the sky towards the dawn with her single horse, and Zeus steered on a different course the seven pathways of the running Pleiads. And so followed the exchange of deaths for deaths, the feast to which Thyestes gave his name, and Cretan Aerope’s betrayal of her marriage-bed, treacherous wife! Now the final sorrows fall on me [1010] and my father through the calamitous necessity of this house.55

[ORESTES and PYLADES enter.]

CHORUS: Here your brother comes, condemned by the vote to death, and Pylades, most loyal of all men, like a brother to him, guiding Orestes’ faltering limbs and lending him support with anxious step.

ELECTRA: Oh, the pain! I mourn to see you, brother, before the tomb, before the pyre of death!

Oh, further pain! As I look at you for the last time I lose [1020] my senses!

ORESTES: Hush this womanish wailing and accept what has been decreed! Our state is pitiful but we must endure.

ELECTRA: How can I stay silent? We wretches shall never more look upon this light the god sends!

ORESTES: Don’t you be the death of me as well! It is enough that I will be killed by Argive hands; say no more about our present troubles!

ELECTRA: Oh, Orestes, I pity you for your youth, your lot, your untimely death! You should have lived, not died! [1030]

ORESTES: In heaven’s name do not unman me, causing me to weep by mention of our woes!

ELECTRA: We are going to die; I cannot help lamenting our fate. All mankind grieves when a precious life is at stake.

ORESTES: This is our appointed day; we must grasp a noose to hang ourselves or prepare to use a sword.

ELECTRA: Then you must kill me now, brother, so that no Argive may do the deed and so bring insult on the son of Agamemnon.

ORESTES: It is enough that I have spilled my mother’s blood, without killing you as well; die by your own hand in whatever [1040] way you wish.

ELECTRA: So I shall; my own sword-thrust shall not lag behind yours. But let me put my arms around your neck!

ORESTES: Enjoy that empty pleasure, if an embrace can give joy to those who have come near death.

ELECTRA: My dearest! O my beloved brother, how I delight in the name of your sister! We are one soul!

ORESTES: Oh, your words melt me! I want to answer your love with a loving embrace of my own. Why should I any longer [1050] feel shame at this,56 wretch that I am?

[He accepts her embrace.]

ELECTRA: Ah, if it were right, I wish the same sword might kill us both, and a single tomb, fashioned of cedar wood, might receive the two of us!

ORESTES: This would be most welcome; but you see how we lack friends to see that we share one tomb.

ELECTRA: Did Menelaus – that coward, that traitor to my father – not speak on your behalf, did he not plead strongly against your death?

ORESTES: He did not show his face but fixed his hope upon the throne, taking care not to save his friends. But come, let us make sure we die after doing noble deeds most worthy of [1060] Agamemnon!

I will plunge a sword into my heart and show the people of Argos the nobility of my line. You, in turn, must act in imitation of my bold deed. Pylades, you must preside over our bloody contest, and once we have died, lay our bodies out properly, carry us to our father’s tomb and there bury us together. Now, farewell; I go to do the deed, as you see.

PYLADES: Wait! I have one fault to find with you, that you expected me to desire life when you had died. [1070]

ORESTES: But what need is there for you to die with me?

PYLADES: You ask that? What need to live without your companionship?

ORESTES: You did not kill your mother, as I did in my wretchedness.

PYLADES: But I shared your deed and so must bear the same consequences.

ORESTES: Return to your father, do not die with me. You have a city,57 I have none; you have a father’s house, a spacious haven of wealth. You cannot marry this ill-starred woman whom I promised to you out of respect for our friendship.

Choose another bride and have children. The marriage tie [1080] between you and me is not to be. Now, dearest and best of friends, farewell! This is not for us to enjoy, but perhaps for you; no joy shall we have once dead.

PYLADES: You have no grasp of what my intentions are. May the fruitful earth not receive my blood, no, nor the bright air of heaven, if ever I betray you, ever preserve my own life and fail you! I shared in the act of murder, I will not deny it, and planned everything for which you now face punishment. Therefore I should also share death with you [1090] and this woman; for I judge her to be my wife, as I willingly accepted her hand in marriage. What honourable words shall I speak when I go to the land of Delphi, the citadel of the Phocians, I who was your friend before your fortunes waned but, now that disaster has struck, am your friend no longer? It is unthinkable!

This woe is my concern as much as yours. Since we are going to die, let us consider together how Menelaus should share our misery.58

ORESTES: O my dear friend, if only I might see this before I [1100] die!

PYLADES: Then listen to my words, and delay that sword-stroke!

ORESTES: So I shall, if it means taking vengeance on my enemy!

PYLADES [looking at the chorus]: Keep your voice down! I put little trust in women.

ORESTES: Do not fear them; they are here as our friends.59

PYLADES: Let us kill Helen, and torture Menelaus with grief!

ORESTES: How? You will find me ready, if we can succeed.

PYLADES: Run a sword through her throat; she hides inside your house now.

ORESTES: So she does; yes, and puts her seal on all my belongings.

PYLADES: This will stop soon, once she has Hades as her bridegroom!

[1110] ORESTES: But how? She has her foreign attendants.

PYLADES: Who are they? Phrygians! None of them would make me tremble!

ORESTES: Yes, the sort who are in charge of mirrors and scents!

PYLADES: What? Has she returned here with Trojan luxuries?

ORESTES: Let me tell you, Greece provides too small a household for her!

PYLADES: Slaves cannot compare with men who are free-born.

ORESTES: Yes! Let me do this deed and I have no fear of dying twice over!

PYLADES: Nor have I, if only I gain vengeance for you!

ORESTES: Explain the business to me and make your meaning clear.

PYLADES: We will go into the house as though to our deaths.

[1120] ORESTES: So much I understand; it is the rest I fail to grasp.

PYLADES: We will shed tears before her at our lamentable situation.

ORESTES: And make her weep, while secretly rejoicing!

PYLADES: And the pair of us will have the same feelings then as she has!

ORESTES: How are we then going to fight this contest?

PYLADES: We shall have swords hidden here in our cloaks.

ORESTES: How shall we get rid of the attendants first?

PYLADES: We will exclude them, shutting them up in different parts of the house.

ORESTES: And we must kill anyone who doesn’t hold his tongue.

PYLADES: After that the deed itself will show us how to proceed.

ORESTES: Kill Helen; I understand the sign.60 [1130]

PYLADES: You are right; and let me tell you how my plan is an honourable one. If we were drawing our swords against a more virtuous woman, the killing would be inglorious. But as it is,61 she will be answering to the whole of Greece, whose fathers she killed, whose sons she destroyed, whose brides she robbed of their husbands. Cries of exultation shall be raised, and fires kindled to the gods, as men pray for blessings to befall you and me for having shed the blood of a wicked woman. Once you have killed this woman, you shall not hear the name of ‘matricide’ but lose this reproach and gain a better [1140] name, when men call you ‘the killer of Helen who killed many a man’.

It is not right, not right, I say, that Menelaus should prosper, while your father and you and your sister should die, or that your mother – but enough of that subject: it is not proper to speak of – and that he should possess your house, when it was Agamemnon’s spear that won him back his bride!

May I indeed no longer go on living if I fail to draw my black sword against her! So if we fail to slaughter Helen, we shall set fire to this house and then die. For one thing we shall [1150] surely achieve and then enjoy glory, having died with honour or won safety with honour.

CHORUS-LEADER: Tyndareus’ daughter, who brought shame on her sex, deserves the hatred of all women.

ORESTES: Ah, there is nothing a man should value more than a firm friend, not wealth, not kingship. A multitude counts for nothing when weighed against an honourable friend. You were the one who devised a deadly end for Aegisthus and stood at my side in the hour of danger, and now, yet again, [1160] you show me the way to punish my enemies and stand fast beside me. I will stop praising you, since even this, excessive commendation, can prove irksome.

As for me, as I draw my last breath, I wish above all else to do some harm to my enemies before I die, to repay those who betrayed me and hear the groans of those who made me wretched. I was born the son of Agamemnon, who was thought worthy to rule Greece, no despot, but wielding power such as a god might possess. I will not disgrace him by dying [1170] like a slave but will relinquish life as a free man should, and I will have my vengeance on Menelaus. For we could count ourselves happy if we succeeded in one aim; and, if the unexpected should happen and we win safety from some source, killing without being killed, most welcome would this be. This is the outcome I wish, and it is pleasant to voice winged words at no expense and so bring one’s heart joy.

ELECTRA: Brother, I think I see a way to achieve this very thing,62 deliverance for you, for this man, and, thirdly, for me!

ORESTES: These words suggest a god has inspired your thoughts! But what is the plan? I know you have never lacked intelligence. [1180]

ELECTRA: Listen to me now; and you too, Pylades, pay attention.

ORESTES: Go on. What advantage is there in deferring good news?

ELECTRA: You know Helen’s daughter? Of course you do!

ORESTES: I do: Hermione, whom my mother raised.

ELECTRA: She has gone to Clytemnestra’s tomb …

ORESTES: With what in mind? What hope are you suggesting?

ELECTRA: To pour libations at the grave on her mother’s behalf.

ORESTES: Why are you saying this? How does it help us to win safety?

ELECTRA: Seize hold of her, when she comes back, and hold her hostage!

ORESTES: What evil will this cure for us three friends? 1190

ELECTRA: Once Helen is dead, if Menelaus tries to do some harm to you, to this man, or to me (this band of friends is one), say that you will kill Hermione. You must hold your drawn sword close to the girl’s neck. And if Menelaus, not wanting his daughter killed, seeks to spare your life, let him have her back alive, his darling girl; but if he fails to control his fierce anger and seeks to kill you, then cut her maiden throat. He may rage and rant at first, but I think his temper [1200] will soon subside: he is not brave or warlike in nature. This is the plan I offer, a wall to keep us safe from our enemies. You have heard it all.

ORESTES: Oh, you may have a body that suits your female sex but the mind you have is a man’s! How you deserve to live rather than to die! Pylades, such is the wife you will forfeit, poor fellow, or, should you live, the enviable marriage you will make!

PYLADES: Oh, may this prize be mine and may she come to the city of the Phocians with lovely wedding-hymns to do her honour! [1210]

ORESTES: How soon will Hermione return to the house? Your suggestions are in other respects excellent, if we succeed in capturing the cub of an impious father.

ELECTRA: I think she is already near the house; the time is right.

ORESTES: Good. Now, Electra my sister, wait in front of the house and be ready to receive the girl when she arrives. Be on guard in case anyone enters the house first, before the killing is completed, and, if so, shout a warning into the building – strike the doors or send a message inside. Now let [1220] us go in and arm our hands with swords for the final contest. [1230]

O Father, who dwell in the halls of gloomy Night, your son Orestes calls you to come as helper!63

ELECTRA: Oh, come, Father, if from the earth below you hear your children calling; it is for you that we are dying!

PYLADES: O Agamemnon, my father’s close kinsman, listen to my prayers also and save your children!

ORESTES: I killed my mother

ELECTRA: And my hand gripped the sword …

PYLADES: And my voice urged them on and removed their scruples.

ORESTES: … in your cause, Father.

ELECTRA: … and I did not betray you!

PYLADES: When you hear their shameful condition will you not protect your children?

ORESTES: I pour for you the libation of my tears.

ELECTRA: And I my cries of sorrow!

[1240] PYLADES: Enough! Let us proceed to the task. If prayers, like javelins, can pierce below the earth, he hears. O Zeus, our ancestor, and Justice, majestic goddess, grant success to this man, to me and to this woman! Three friends we may be but one dangerous struggle awaits us, and one just cause.

[ORESTES and PYLADES go into the palace. ELECTRA and the CHORUS now sing, now speak in dramatic exchange as the plan unfolds.]

ELECTRA [Strophe]: Women of Mycenae, my friends, highest in rank in the Pelasgian seat of the Argives

CHORUS: What is it you are saying, lady? For you can still count on [1250] our loyalty in the city of Danaus’ folk.

ELECTRA: … position yourselves, some along the highway there, the rest on the other road here, to keep watch on the house.

CHORUS: But tell me, my friend, why do you ask this service of me?

ELECTRA: I am afraid that someone, seeing my brother poised to do the bloody killing, will devise further woes for us.

CHORUS-LEADER: Onward! Let us hurry! [The CHORUS now divides into two, taking up the different positions as instructed.]

SEMICHORUS 1: I will guard this road that faces the sun’s rays.

[1260] SEMICHORUS 2: And I this road that looks westward.

ELECTRA [to the whole CHORUS]: Now turn your eyes to right and left!

CHORUS: We are looking from one side to another and back again, as you urge.

ELECTRA: Very well, then, let your eyes range all around, peering in all directions through your hair.

SEMICHORUS 1: Here comes someone on our path! What countryman is this who visits your palace? [1270]

ELECTRA: We are ruined, friends! He will at once reveal to our enemies the armed hunt that lurks in hiding inside!

SEMICHORUS 2: Don’t be afraid – the road is empty, my friend; there is no one there, as you thought.

ELECTRA: What? Can I rely on you still? Give me a report I can trust, if there is no one there in front of the palace.

CHORUS-LEADER: No cause for alarm here; but look on your side. None of Danaus’ folk is coming near to us

LEADER OF SEMICHORUS 2: Your report squares with mine; no crowd is to be seen on this side either. [1280]

ELECTRA: Very well, let me listen at the doors!

CHORUS: You two inside, all is quiet, so why delay in staining with red blood the sacrificial victim?

ELECTRA: They do not hear; oh, pity me for my misery! Have their swords lost their edge in the face of beauty?64

CHORUS-LEADER: In no time some armed man of Argos shall rush up to the rescue and burst into the palace! [1290]

ELECTRA: Keep closer watch now! This is no time for sitting still; use your eyes, you on this side, you others on that!

CHORUS: I am going up and down the road, spying everywhere.

HELEN [screaming from inside]:65 Pelasgian Argos, I am being foully killed!

ELECTRA: Did you hear? The men are at their murderous work! That shriek was Helen’s, I guess!

CHORUS: O Zeus, Zeus, whose power is everlasting, come to the aid of my friends with all your might! [1300]

HELEN [from inside]: Menelaus, I am dying! And you are not at my side to help me!

ELECTRA AND CHORUS: Stab her, kill her, strike her, destroy her!66 Drive home at close quarters your twin swords with double edge – kill the woman who deserted both father and husband, who brought death by the spear to countless Greeks who perished by that river, where tears fell on tears for the iron shafts that hailed down by Scamander’s [1310] whirling stream!

CHORUS-LEADER: Silence, keep silence! I heard the sound of someone’s steps coming along the road beside the palace!

ELECTRA: Dearest women, here comes Hermione,67 walking into the jaws of death! Our cries must stop, for here she approaches, about to tumble into the meshes of our net! A fine prey to catch she’ll be, if she is caught. Compose yourselves once more and look on calmly; don’t let your colouring betray the deed that is done! I, too, will wear a sullen look in [1320] my eye, as if I know nothing of what has been achieved.

[HERMIONE enters.]

Maiden, have you returned from garlanding Clytemnestra’s grave and pouring drink-offerings to her dead spirit?

HERMIONE: I am here, having gained her goodwill. But I felt a pang of fear at a cry I heard from inside the house when I was yet some distance away.

ELECTRA: Well, the fate that has befallen us does merit wailing.

HERMIONE: Oh, do not say words like that! What news do you have to tell?

ELECTRA: This land has decided that Orestes and I must die.

HERMIONE: Oh, no! My own cousins!

[1330] ELECTRA: It is fixed; necessity’s yoke is upon us.

ELECTRA: Was this the cause also of the cry inside the palace?

ELECTRA: Yes; he cried out when he fell in supplication at Helen’s knees …

HERMIONE: Who? I know nothing more unless you tell me.

ELECTRA: … the wretched Orestes, begging for his life, and for mine.

HERMIONE: So there is cause indeed for the house to ring with cries of woe.

ELECTRA: What stronger reason would a man have for crying out? But come, help your kin in their entreaty, falling before your mother so blessed by the gods, that Menelaus should not look on while we die. Come, you were nurtured in my mother’s arms – have pity and lighten our burden of sorrow! [1340] Come with me to face this trial, and I will lead the way. You alone can bring us safely to our goal.

HERMIONE: See, I hurry into the house at once! As far as rests with me, your safety is assured.

[HERMIONE enters the palace.]

ELECTRA: You armed friends indoors, seize your prey! Hold her, hold her fast, put the sword at her throat and wait in patience for Menelaus to learn his lesson, that he has found [1350] men here, not cowardly Phrygians, and has met the kind of treatment cowards deserve.

[ELECTRA follows HERMIONE into the palace.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: Now, now, friends, raise a din, din and shouting before the palace, lest the murder done should strike a terrible fear in the Argives’ hearts and make them run to the royal dwelling to bring help before I see with my own eyes Helen lying indoors in bloody death, or hear the news from one of the servants. Some of what has happened I know, but the rest not clearly. With justice has the [1360] vengeance of the gods come upon Helen; she filled all Greece with tears for Idaean Paris’ sake, that man of death and destruction, who brought Greece to Ilium.

CHORUS-LEADER: But there is a rumbling from the palace doors.68 Keep quiet! One of the Phrygians is coming out; we’ll learn from him how things stand indoors.

[A PHRYGIAN HOUSE-SLAVE emerges from the palace, perhaps running out, perhaps appearing on the roof and leaping or jumping down, in any case in a state of extreme agitation. He sings a monody, in a wide variety of metres, narrating the terrible events inside.]

PHRYGIAN: From death by Argive sword have I escaped, climbing over the cedar rafters of the chambers and down the Dorian triglyphs [1370] in my foreign slippers – gone, gone, o Earth, Earth! – running away like the foreign slave I am!

Ah! Where can I flee, ladies, soaring into the white air of heaven or over the sea that bull-headed Oceanus moves to and fro in his embrace as he circles the earth?

CHORUS-LEADER: What is your news, servant of Helen, you [1380] who once dwelt in Ida?

PHRYGIAN: Ilium, Ilium – oh, misery, misery! – city of Phrygia, and you, Ida, holy and fertile mountain, in foreign tones I wail for your downfall, caused by the vision of beauty bird-born, Leda’s swan-winged chick,69 Helen the Hell-child, Hell-child, sent as a Fury to punish the shining towers Apollo raised.

[1390] Oh, misery, misery and mourning! Unhappy land of Dardanus, where Ganymede70 rode his horses and brought pleasure to the bed of Zeus!

CHORUS-LEADER: Tell us plainly and directly all that happened in the house.

PHRYGIAN: ‘Woe for Linus! Woe for Linus!’ – the beginning of the dirge that foreigners chant – ah, misery! – in their Asian tongue, when royal blood is spilled on the earth, as iron swords do their deadly [1400] work! There came into the house, to tell you the whole tale exactly, two lions of Greece with double step. One was called son of the commander of the host, the other was Strophius’ son, a wicked schemer of a man, like Odysseus, silent and crafty, loyal to his friends, brave in the fight and shrewd in war, a serpent craving blood. Curse him for his patient forethought, the villain!

In they came and approached the throne of the woman whose hand [1410] Paris the archer won, their eyes stained with tears, and grovelling, the pair of them, one on this side, one on that, and clasping her on left and right, they cast, yes, they cast suppliant hands around Helen’s knees. Up leaped her Phrygian attendants, up they leaped in haste; and falling to the ground in fear, they said, one to another: ‘Some [1420] treachery here, I fancy!’ Some thought not, but others felt a cunning net was being coiled round Tyndareus’ daughter by that serpent who killed his mother.71

CHORUS-LEADER: Where were you at that moment? Or had you fled long since in terror?

PHRYGIAN: In the Phrygian fashion, it happened, the Phrygian, I was stirring the air, the air,72 with a round fan of feathers by the hair of Helen, and cooling the cheeks of Helen, while she twined with her [1430] fingers the flax from her distaff and the threads trailed down to the floor. She wanted to use this thread to embroider a purple robe she was making from the Phrygian spoils, as a gift to adorn the tomb of Clytemnestra. Orestes addressed the Spartan lady: ‘Child of Zeus, rise from your seat, step down here to the ground, and accompany me [1440] to the ancient altar-hearth of ancestral Pelops, to learn what news I bring.’ And on he led her, led her, while on she followed, little divining what lay in store. But his accomplice was engaged in other business: ‘Out of the way, away with you, Phrygian cowards!’ he cried, as he shut them up in various parts of the palace, some in the stables, others in outlying apartments, separating and disposing of [1450] them in different places, away from their mistress’ side.

CHORUS-LEADER: What then happened after this?

PHRYGIAN: Mother, Mother of Ida, mighty, mighty one invoked in prayer, what bloody suffering, what lawless wickedness did I see, did I see in the palace of the king! From their purple-bordered cloaks where they lay concealed they pulled out their swords and held them as they darted glances around, Orestes this way, Pylades that, in case someone should be there to witness. Like mountain boars they stood [1460] there facing the woman and cried out: ‘You will die, you will die! Your killer is your coward of a husband who betrayed his brother’s son to death in Argos!’ Then wildly she cried, she cried: ‘Oh, pity me, pity me!’ And dashing a white forearm against her breast she struck her head with piteous blows, and was turning to flee, to flee, in her gold sandals, when Orestes stepped forward in his Mycenaean boots and, thrusting his fingers into her hair, he bent her neck down [1470] to her left shoulder, poised to plunge his black sword through her throat.

CHORUS-LEADER: But where were you Phrygians in the palace to defend her?

PHRYGIAN: The house raised a cry and we ran to help, having used crowbars to break down the doors of the stables where we still were imprisoned, all of us from different parts of the palace, one carrying stones, another a bow, a third a drawn sword in his hands. But [1480] against us came the indomitable Pylades, like Hector the Phrygian or triple-helmed Ajax, whom I saw, I saw at Priam’s gates. We clashed with swords, point to point. Then, yes, then it was clear to see how much we Phrygians are inferior to Greek spearsmen in martial prowess,73 as one of us took to his heels, another lay dead, a third was wounded, a fourth turned suppliant as a defence against death. Men were falling, dead, some on the point of death, others prone already. So under concealment we tried to make our escape.

[1490] Then poor Hermione entered the house, as the wretched mother who gave her birth lay covered in blood on the ground. They ran at her and seized hold of her, like Bacchants without wands, who have caught a young beast of the mountain, then turned back eagerly to their slaughter of Zeus’ daughter. But she was not to be seen – o Zeus and Earth, Light and Night! – she had vanished from the house, whether by black magic or wizards’ spells or stolen away by the gods.

Of what then ensued I know no more; for I had turned runaway and was making my stealthy escape from the palace. Ah, little, little [1500] did it profit Menelaus to win his wife back from Troy – much misery, much misery and suffering did she cost him!

CHORUS-LEADER: A novel tale and here we have fresh novelties: I see Orestes, sword in hand, striding forth from the palace – his passion gives his feet wings!

[ORESTES enters from the palace doorway.74]

ORESTES: Where is the fellow who escaped my sword by running out of the palace?

PHRYGIAN: O my royal lord, I prostrate myself before you! I fall at your feet in the barbarian way!

ORESTES: This is not Ilium where we find ourselves but the land of Argos.

PHRYGIAN: Men of sense everywhere find life a more pleasant prospect than death!

ORESTES: You didn’t shout out for Menelaus to come to the [1510] rescue, did you, now?

PHRYGIAN: No! I shouted for you to be helped! You are the worthier man.

ORESTES: Then it was just, was it, that Tyndareus’ daughter perished?75

PHRYGIAN: Most just – if she had had three throats for slitting!

ORESTES: You curry favour with a coward’s tongue; these are not your true feelings.

PHRYGIAN: Should she not have perished, when she involved Greece and Phrygians in one shameful ruin?

ORESTES: Swear (or else I will kill you) that you’re not saying this just to please me.

PHRYGIAN: I swear by my own life – the most sacred oath I could make!

ORESTES: Did the sword make all Phrygians quake like this at Troy as well?

PHRYGIAN: Take your blade away – it flashes fearful murder at such close quarters!

ORESTES: Are you afraid of turning into stone, as though you had seen a Gorgon? [1520]

PHRYGIAN: No – of turning into a corpse; I don’t know about a Gorgon’s head!

ORESTES: You, a slave, fear Hades, who will give you freedom from misery?

PHRYGIAN: Every man, even if he is a slave, enjoys seeing the light of day.

ORESTES: You’re right, and this good sense has saved your life. Off you go, into the house!

PHRYGIAN: Then you are not going to kill me?

ORESTES: You are spared.

PHRYGIAN: Now that’s a welcome word in my ear!

ORESTES: But I will change my plan.

PHRYGIAN: That’s less welcome news!

ORESTES: You fool – to think I would bring myself to make your throat red with blood, a creature that is neither woman nor man! I came out of the palace to stop your shouting; Argos is quick to rouse itself once the cry for help is heard. [1530]

[The PHRYGIAN exits at a run away from the palace.]

As for Menelaus, I have no fear of welcoming him in range of my sword; let him come, parading his golden curls down to his shoulders! For if he does raise a force of Argives and come against this house, seeking blood to avenge Helen’s murder, and proves unwilling to save me, my sister, and Pylades, my partner in this deed, he will see his daughter and his wife both lying dead!

[ORESTES exits into the palace.]

CHORUS [Antistrophe]: Oh, what fortune assails the house! Again it falls into a further terrible conflict concerning Atreus’ offspring! What should we do? Take word of these happenings to the city or [1540] keep silent? That is the safer course, friends.

[Smoke and flame begin to appear above the palace.]

Look, look, where the smoke billows skyward and sends its message from the palace front! They are kindling pinewood torches to fire the palace of Tantalus and are still bent on murder!

The gods’ will determines the final outcome for mortals, and that outcome is as they choose. A mighty kind of power also is the power of vengeful spirits; this house has fallen, fallen in bloody ruin because Myrtilus fell76 from his chariot!

But here I see Menelaus approaching the palace in haste – [1550] he must have learned what is happening here! Children of Atreus inside the house, bar the gates as quickly as you can! A prosperous man is an enemy to be feared by those in trouble, as your fortune now is low, Orestes.

[MENELAUS enters with attendants.]

MENELAUS: I come having heard of strange and violent deeds [1560] done by twin lions; I do not call them humans. Someone open up the house! Servants, put your shoulders to the doors here – we must rescue my daughter from the murderous hands of these men!

[ORESTES and PYLADES carrying swords and torches appear above the stage, with HERMIONE between them; ELECTRA is by their side.]

ORESTES: You there, don’t lay a hand on these bolts, yes, you, Menelaus, you tower of arrogance! Otherwise I’ll crush your head with this coping-stone, tearing up this ancient roof that masons toiled to build! The bolts are securely held with levers [1570] and will frustrate your efforts at rescue, however vigorous. You will not gain entry to the house!

MENELAUS: Ah, what’s this? I see flaring torches and, on the palace roof, those men at bay, manning the ramparts with my daughter under guard, a sword held at her throat!

ORESTES: Are you here to ask questions or to listen to me?

MENELAUS: Neither; but it seems I must listen to you.

ORESTES: I intend to kill your daughter – if you want to know.

MENELAUS: You have murdered Helen – will you add bloodshed to bloodshed?

ORESTES: If only I had succeeded in that without the gods cheating me! [1580]

MENELAUS: Do you now deny you killed her and say these words to mock me?

ORESTES: It pains me to deny it; oh, how I wish …

MENELAUS: You had done what? Your words frighten me!

ORESTES: … I had flung that woman who polluted Greece down to Hades’ kingdom!

MENELAUS: Give me back my wife’s body – let me bury her!

ORESTES: Ask her back from the gods; but I will kill your daughter.

MENELAUS: Was the stain of her mother’s blood not enough for you?

ORESTES: I will never tire of killing wicked women. [1590]

MENELAUS: And you, Pylades, do you also share his murderous act?

ORESTES: His silence proclaims he does;77 my words will suffice.

MENELAUS: You won’t get away with this, unless you have wings for your escape!

ORESTES: We do not intend escape; we mean to set the palace on fire.

MENELAUS: What? You mean to destroy this house of your fathers?

ORESTES: Yes – to keep you from possessing it, and I will sacrifice this woman as well over the flames!

MENELAUS: Then be a killer – you will feel the vengeance of [1598] my hand for this!

ORESTES: Be silent then, and accept with patience the misfortune you have justly earned!

[ORESTES raises his sword above HERMIONE.]

MENELAUS: Oh, take your sword away from my daughter!78

ORESTES: You are a born liar!

MENELAUS: You are going to kill my daughter?

ORESTES: But now you tell the truth!

MENELAUS: Oh, this is agony! What shall I do?

[1610] ORESTES: Go to the Argives and urge them …

MENELAUS: What should I urge?

ORESTES: Beg the people to spare our lives.

MENELAUS: Or you will murder my child?


MENELAUS: Is it just that you should live?

[1600] ORESTES: Yes, and that I should rule this land besides!

MENELAUS: What land?

ORESTES: Here in Pelasgian Argos.

MENELAUS: How fitting that would be – you touching the holy vessels …

ORESTES: Why should I not?

MENELAUS: … and performing sacrifice before battle!

ORESTES: You would do so with honour, would you?

MENELAUS: Yes; my hands are not polluted.

ORESTES: But your heart is!

MENELAUS: What man would speak to you?

ORESTES: Anyone who loves his father.

MENELAUS: And what about one who honours his mother?

ORESTES: He’s a lucky man!

MENELAUS: Well, you are not.

ORESTES: I agree; I hate women who are wicked.

MENELAUS: O Helen, how I pity you …

ORESTES: Are my sufferings not to be pitied?

MENELAUS: … I brought you back from Troy to be a sacrifice …

ORESTES: I wish she had been!

MENELAUS: … and many a long, hard labour it cost me!

ORESTES: For me you endured no hardship.

MENELAUS: This treatment is outrageous!

ORESTES: You were no friend to me before.

MENELAUS: You have me in your grip.

ORESTES: You have trapped yourself by having no principles. Come, Electra, set this house on fire! And you, Pylades, truest of my friends, light up the roof and battlements here! [1620]

MENELAUS: O land of Danaus’ people, men who dwell in horse-rearing Argos, come, take up weapons and run to our aid! This man who has defiled himself with the blood of his own mother is seeking to live by doing violence to your whole city!

[APOLLO appears on high,79 with HELEN at his side.]

APOLLO: Menelaus, your anger has too sharp an edge – curb it now! It is I who stand near and call upon you – Phoebus, son of Leto! And you, Orestes, standing guard with sword over this girl, cease, so you may hear the words I bring.

As to Helen, whom you failed to kill for all your eagerness, stirred by anger against Menelaus, I saved her from your [1630] sword, snatching her up at the bidding of my father Zeus. As the child of Zeus it is her fate to live immortal; in the distant heavens she will sit enthroned with Castor and Polydeuces, bringing safety to mariners.80 For the gods used this woman’s unequalled beauty to make Greeks and Phrygians clash in war; they caused men to die in order to rid the earth of its [1640] complement of mortals,81 who had swollen in arrogance as in number.

So much for the destiny of Helen. You, Orestes, are fated in turn to quit the borders of this land and for the cycle of one year to dwell on Parrhasian soil, that shall be called after your name in memory of your exile there. From that place you are to journey to the city of the Athenians and submit to prosecution by the three Furies for spilling the blood of your mother in murder. On Ares’ Hill gods shall sit in judgement at [1650] your trial and cast their votes most righteously; here you are destined to prevail.82

As for Hermione, at whose throat you hold your sword, Orestes, it is fated that you take her as your wife. The man who thinks that he will marry her, Neoptolemus,83 shall never win her hand; he is destined to die by Delphian swords when he seeks recompense from me for the death of his father Achilles. Give Pylades your sister’s hand in marriage – you promised her to him once; a life of happiness awaits him in the years to come.

And you, Menelaus, do not stand in the way of Orestes’ [1660] ruling over Argos. Go to the land of Sparta and be king there, enjoying that as your wife’s dowry – she has now ceased to bring you countless troubles, as she did before. As for this man’s low standing with the folk of Argos, I compelled him to murder his mother and I will reconcile them to him.

ORESTES: O prophetic Loxias, then your oracles came from no false lips but were true? And yet I began to fear that I might have heard some spirit of vengeance84 and only imagined hearing your voice. But it is a happy conclusion and I will do [1670] as you say. See, I release Hermione from sacrifice, and when her father gives his consent I’ll gladly marry her!

MENELAUS: O Helen, child of Zeus, farewell! I envy you the blessed home you will have among the gods! Orestes, I betroth my daughter to you, at Phoebus’ command.

Your blood is noble, as is your bride’s – may she bring happiness to you, and to me who give her to you!

APOLLO: Take now the various paths I have prescribed and relinquish your strife!

MENELAUS: We must obey.

[1680] ORESTES: I agree. I call a truce, Menelaus, with what has passed between us, and likewise, Loxias, with your oracles.

APOLLO: Depart now on your journeys and pay honour to the fairest of divinities, Peace! I will convey Helen to the dwelling of Zeus, after traversing the star-bright vault of heaven, where she shall sit enthroned beside Hera and Hebe, wife of Heracles, forever receiving the tribute of men’s libations and, with her brothers, sons of Tyndareus and of Zeus, ruling over the watery ocean for mariners. [1690]

[APOLLO and HELEN withdraw; ORESTES, PYLADES, ELECTRA and HERMIONE descend into the house; MENELAUS and his attendants march off stage. Only the CHORUS remain.]

CHORUS: O Victory, most holy, support my life and do not cease from giving me your crown!85


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